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Design Lead, Shopify

Helen Tran

E12

Design Leadership & Team Communication

E12

Design Leadership & Team Communication

Design Leadership & Team Communication

Helen and Andrew discuss design leadership, what it takes to communicate well within a large product team, and using design to reach business goals.

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Episode Details

Hosted By
Andrew Verboncouer
Guest
Helen Tran
Show Notes
Transcript

Andrew Verboncouer: 

You're listening to the Seaworthy Podcast, Episode12, Design Leadership and Team Communication. Seaworthy is a podcast about building successful software.Today we're talking about meeting business goals through design, scaling a design team, and focusing on the human side of leadership.

I'm excited to have Helen Tran on the show with me today. Helen is a product designer, and currently a design lead at Shopify, a company making e commerce better for everyone. Welcome to the show Helen. Thanks for coming on. How are you doing?


Helen Tran:   

Good. How are you?


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Good. I'm doing good. Staying, trying to stay warm here in Wisconsin.


Helen Tran:   

Are you going to complain about the cold to a Canadian, is this what's happening? 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

No, I imagine it's similar up there now. We're not that far apart.


Helen Tran:   

Actually. I didn't find it so bad. We've had a pretty mild winter, so yeah, pretty happy about that. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yeah, that's good. How long have you been up there?


Helen Tran:   

My whole life. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Your whole life, ok. 


Helen Tran:   

I'm never leaving Canada. Have you heard? It's like paradise.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

It's starting to look like it.


Helen Tran:   

It's really good up here. I just want to say there's like putine, and peace. It's great.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yeah it sounds great. So yeah, before we get started, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, your background and how you got started in design? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, sure. I am a design lead at Shopify, as you said. I started making websites really young when I was 13. And I just I guess I never really stopped. So I fell in love with design, I guess what, during the early stages of the internet, when websites were black backgrounds with like blue flames on them. And that was what you could do. And it was super cool or like marquee scrolling across left and right. So I did that and like was really into when am skins and making really nerdy forum signatures and stuff like that. And then as I got older, these courses weren't really offered, you know, the courses that you have now weren't in existence back then. So after high school, I decided to go into formal graphic design because I knew I had the skill set. But I didn't really know that like, I didn't really know how to apply it. So the closest thing was formal graphic design. So I went through or program there.  And so I guess you could say, I'm formally trained, and then past that, thankfully, the internet caught up with the rest or the rest of the world caught up with the internet actually. And I managed to find a branding job and agency and then spent three years pushing that agency to get more to digital work. And we ended up making that move and it was really really great on the side, open my own business, I did all this stuff and then worked for a documentary filmmaker forbids, moved to a start up and then eventually found this agency, a design agency in Toronto called check Jet Cooper and Jet Cooper worked on products product mostly consulted a bunch of startups on their design and product design, as well as did a lot of client work for some really big clients in Canada. And then eventually we were acquired by Shopify, and that was three and a half years ago.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Oh, yeah, I didn't know that you were acquired by Shopify, that's cool. 


Helen Tran:   

Yeah, it was a crazy experience. Like I never imagined that that would have ever happened to me. And at the time acquisitions in Toronto were pretty I wouldn't say rare, but tech in Toronto is still kind of a blossoming area so to hear that we were acquired was very new and then, you know, the rest of the three years I think there's been more people looking towards Canada for talent and acquiring agencies out of here. But yeah. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yeah that is an interesting path. So you went...did you happen to do any my spaces back in the day when you were doing glitz and glam and marquee scrolling and all that stuff?


Helen Tran:   

I actually did, don't look me up I didn't use my name. But yeah, I'm embarrassed by my MySpace-ness. But I think I was more huge into at the time Asian Avenue was really big for me and my also non Asian friends. So Asian Avenue is big. And I think I was playing Neopets far longer than I probably should have. Yeah, so I think actually Asian Avenue, it's pretty embarrassing, was probably where I learned the majority of my inline CSS stuff. And then I bought my own domain at 15 or 16. And then yeah, went from there. Yeah.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yeah, that's fun. You know, you've been at Shopify for three and a half years, did you say?


Helen Tran:   

Yes, that's correct. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

So when you started, you got acquired. And you had started at Shopify - were you I mean, I guess what level did you enter? You know, right now your design lead? How did you get started at Shopify as a designer?


Helen Tran:   

Oh, yeah, I was probably mid weight at that time, midweight, probably like leaning towards senior I had had like, three - no, that was like five years under my belt at that time. And I had gotten to the point in the agency where I was actually leading a lot of the projects and Jet Cooper, I actually lead like a huge redesign at Sobeys.com. Sobeys is one of the biggest grocery chains in Toronto. So I led that project there. So I think I think it was... I was weighted to be a little bit more senior. But I was intermediate.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Cool. Yeah. And then now you've advanced to design lead. What'  the makeup of your design team at Shopify?


Helen Tran:   

In terms of impact level?


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, impact level...You know, do you have a lot of, do you do any, I guess - do you have any Junior Designers? Or any type of apprentice type stuff? Or are you more, you know, towards the the senior design lead end? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, that's a really good question. Because I think growth and scaling has a lot to do with where we are. So right now on the product design team in Shopify, Toronto, want to be specific. It's Shopify Toronto, and it's the product design team, because we have other design teams across the company. So there's three design leads, and 15 designers underneath us. And there's a few seniors now, but the rest of them are, I'd say intermediate to senior, there's a couple of mid weights, like pyramid weights in there. And the reason for this was, when you're scaling a design team from scratch, it's a very bad time to add on a junior, especially at this growth rate - we're doubling in employees every year. So like, even if I was to think about my design team. Now, just last year, we had less than half, we had probably a third - like five designers. And now we have 15. So it's, not it's not the wisest decision to take on a junior. But at this point, now, we're finally getting to a point where I feel like our team is stabilized enough. And one of my goals this year is to or I've already formed it, but structure out the intern program in Toronto and so I'm going to be heavily focused on building our junior team and making a stronger pipeline, I guess, but also setting our team up for future success. You obviously can't scale a team properly with just seniors, it you know, it just kind of silly. And also it doesn't give your seniors much room to practice their mentorship skills. So that's gonna be happening over the next six months, I'd say, but I'll be writing about that too - you'll have to read about it. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, sounds exciting. Yeah, for sure. Yeah, we're definitely we're kind of, at that point here, as well. We're, we're building out, you know, apprenticeship getting ready to do that. We already have a program for developers. But, you know, working on that for designers now, which is, it's cool to, you know, think about. I know, Dan Mall spoke a lot about it and Anthony Armendariz at Fun Size, you know, just speaking about bringing people up and teaching them how to be professional. And even if they don't stay here, you know, we're an agency as well. So, you know, working on that. And I think it's always fun, bring people up teaching what you know. And, you know, as you probably learn you, you learn a lot faster when you're teaching someone else as well, kind of fill in the gaps. And yeah, it's exciting.


Helen Tran:   

Yea, it's also... sorry


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Go ahead. 


Helen Tran:   

Yeah, it's also super, super rewarding. So I, part time, I think the past two years, I had been mentoring people from, I guess, no design experience to junior level and like, on a one to one basis, and I think that has probably professionally been the most rewarding period of my life, just because I've had to force myself to go back into my foundations and kind of connect the dots like, what is this thing that I know and do every day? Where does it come from? Why, what does it mean to is to someone else to explain it to them? And to get them to graphs to grasp what I know, but I've learned through time, like, how do I get them to learn that in a second? I think that's it's overwhelming to think about your whole career that way. But it's amazing as well, because you start to realize how much you take for granted, I think.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Right, yeah, exactly how far you've come, you know, 


Helen Tran:   

Yeah, yeah. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

For sure. Yeah, that's really cool. Did you happen to - I saw Dustin Senos put together out of office hours last month. Did you happen to see that by chance? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, I did. Yeah, there are a lot of designers. I think Meg from Shopify also volunteered for that. There's quite a few designers that are on that from Shopify, like Adam Whitcroft as well. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, I was I was able to - I signed up last month. And I was able to speak with almost 20 different designers from all over. I mean, you know, from like, Europe, to Australia, to Canada, and just people coming from everything from rocket science to, you know, business and they're trying to get into design. It's just interesting to see how people perceive design and you know, what their goal is for getting into it. It's, really, yeah, it's inspiring, you know, to see where we're at now, and just think someone you know, is hoping and wishing they can be where you are someday.


Helen Tran:   

Oh, my God. That's amazing. I wish I had an amazing story like that. Like I was a rocket science, like a brilliant rocket scientist. And I chose design, but the truth is, I kind of fell into it. I still love it. But I don't have an amazing story. I wish I did. But that's super cool. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yeah, yeah. No, it's cool. Um, so kind of stepping back a little bit. Can you - what do you like to do outside of work outside of design? And you know, what, keeps you busy when you're not at Shopify? 


Helen Tran:   

Yeah, like, I think 50% of my spare time I'm at the gym. So I have a weird hobby. I guess I pre invested in bodybuilding. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

That's cool.


Helen Tran:   

It's one of my hobbies. And, but to support that, I also do yoga and a bunch of conditioning work. So that takes up a lot of my time. I guess I'm the gym brat. And the other times I try to prepare, I guess for my hikes. So I'm sure, you know, but I do spend a lot of time outside or at least I try to, and it is a new thing for me. So for me, being active, you know, the bodybuilding stuff, or the weightlifting stuff came a lot later in my life. And I think that's pretty obvious. Like I was a computer nerd for a very long time until I hit 24, actually. And I was probably the biggest example of the couch potato. I was totally happy. It was sitting on my couch 12 hours a day being already on my computer or reading. I still do that. But I spend most time on the computer now. But yeah, that's been a new it's a new thing in my life, and is completely changed my life for the better and just so much happier for it. But yeah, I spend a lot of the time preparing for my heights. I just finished the O-circuit in Patagonia, which is 120 kilometers. So it's a back country trail, I guess, or backpacking trip, whatever you call it, and empower that next one. It was absolutely phenomenal. I think Patagonia is probably one of the most beautiful landscapes ever seen. I've been around like, I've been to the state parks in the West, I went to a place I went to another trail in Sweden, which I'm coming back to this year. But last year, I went to the Kungsleden trail, which is the Kings trail. I've been to Australia and Asia and stuff. But yeah, Patagonia is another world It feels I liked it even more than Iceland. And I know everybody says that Iceland is unreal, which it is, but Patagonia has something else to it, I think it's really special. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, that's really cool. And you got back from that recently?


Helen Tran:   

I think about - I left Patagonia on the 29th of December, so...what day is it today?


Andrew Verboncouer: 

It's the 30th. 


Helen Tran:   

Ok, so it's been a month.  Okay. Getting older.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

And you're planning your next one, you said? 


Helen Tran:   

Yes. My next one is gonna be 440 kilometers.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Okay. And how many miles is that for us?


Helen Tran:   

I think that would be around 350. I'm guessing. Like, I feel like it's about 75% of kilometers.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

 Yeah, it's clos. It's around that, it's over 300. 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, so it's like 350...yea, so it'll be about three weeks of hiking.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea that's pretty cool. So I used to live in Hawaii and we did the Nepali Coast hike. 


Helen Tran:   

O yea, I did that as well.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

We didn't do end to end we were only there for a couple days. So we didn't want to spend the whole time hiking but I mean that is gorgeous.


Helen Tran:   

Napali Cost is gorgeous. But I find hiking in Hawaii quite stressful. And not really my thing. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, why is that? 


Helen Tran:   

You have this like....on kawaii you have this crazy slippery red mud. And  I'm not a neat hiker. Like I don't know... people like, the people who go hiking and they come back and their pants are clean, they're crazy. I don't know how they do it. But I'm not that person. I come back completely covered in mud. Disgusting. I stink. And I'm always injured somehow. So the Nepali or hiking in Hawaii in general like, basically - Oh, let's just see Helen, like, go take a mud bath. Like every day, and she'll come back and she'll stink up the car. So like, for me, I think I prefer to be in places like Sweden or Canada or the US when I'm hiking. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea but the views were good. 


Helen Tran:   

O yeah, the Nepali Coast is...I mean everywhere in Hawaii is beautiful. Especially Kauai, it's probably like... they filmed jurassic park there. So anything that Jurassic Park is in, must be beautiful right? 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Right. Right. Yeah. Well, that's cool. So any plans to - sorry, kind of gettinga away from design here - any plans to compete in bodybuilding or just kind of the training and methodology behind it?


Helen Tran:   

Oh, my God, am I going to get into trouble? So I am planning to compete this year. And I feel like if I give you a date, I'm going to like, kick myself in the foot later. So...


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Pressure.  


Helen Tran:   

So, the plans are in motion, and whether or not I go ahead with it. I'm going to say tentative because I don't want some guy on the internet poking at me and be like, but you know, you were gonna compete and then you didn't compete? Yeah ok...So let's just say it's on the top of my mind. And I'm working towards it.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Very cool. Very cool. Well, good luck in the training. I know what goes into that. So...


Helen Tran:   

Yea, it's nuts. It like takes over your life. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, sure. So getting back into design.


Helen Tran:   

Yea, let's talk about that for a bit. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, so you joined Shopify three and a half years ago, about...so what do you think is the biggest difference between when you joined, and now? 


Helen Tran:   

O, to be honest, I'm in a different company, I joined, we were 220 employees. And I don't know what the PR team has told the rest of the world. But I think the last numbers are at 1800 now. But I believe it must be a little bit more than that. I'm not sure if I'm updated there. But yeah, it's a it's a different company. So the way you communicate is different, who you're communicating with is different, how the teams are made up, like every single thing is touched by scale growth. And I feel like at the beginning of the new year, I just kind of have to have this like conversation with myself, where I'm freaking out in a dark room and I'm no, it's okay, you got a new job. For some reason, all the people from your old job moved to your new job. It's a different job now. And then that keeps happening every year. And I think this this year, hit me particularly hard. And I found that to be especially true when we went, we just finished having our summit. So our summit is our yearly event for all of our employees, we all go to headquarters and the CEO and our executives kind of give like a series of talks that talks about the themes for the year. And then we do some product talks that talk about what we want to target for the next year, and kind of rallies our entire company together under one vision. So that happened. And we had rented out the, I think, the biggest venue in Ottawa, and filled it to the brim. And when I looked into the crowd, it used to be that when I looked into the crowd, I knew like 90% of people there. But now I'll look in one direction, and they'll be maybe be 100 people in front of me, and I'll know like 10,20, so it's definitely weird. It's one thing to be in a company where everybody knows your name. And it's another thing to be like, it's actually normal for you not to know people's name. And it's actually normal for you to not even bother introducing yourself. Because of like, the amount of people - we have this joke now where people...there's so many people being hired every day that we walk around the office. And you know, as Shopify employee, when you start new, you're like, Oh, my God, I want to know everybody's name. And then like, a few months later, you're like, fu** it, can only carry like, 250 names in the top of my head, I can't learn all these people's names, and possibly understand, you know, what relevance they have to me, so that's where we are. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, that's - I can imagine at scale with that many people. I mean, even with something like your summit, making sure people share the same values and vision. And around the same page, I can imagine is one of the biggest struggles of, you know, making progress together. And then also just making sure that people are happy, there - right do they feel like they're doing fulfilling work based on, you know, the vision and all that stuff. How do you, you know, how do you feel design kind of ties into the company from that standpoint? 


Helen Tran:   

I think we have...we hire for a very specific type of personality. And it's funny that you speak about vision, and like, making sure everybody has the same values, because I actually think don't think that Shopify necessarily hires for the same frame of thought. So we have, we have a lot of dissenters in our company, which, which I think is very awesome. And at any given time, that, you know, even if your opinion is unpopular, you can kind of field it out to the rest of the company and see what they think about, right. So we kind of encourage that type of thinking. And I think that's very unusual. And I myself or anybody actually can message the CEO anytime. And we've had some really tough conversations directly with our CEO. And he's been a graceful enough to kind of accept our feedback, even if he doesn't particularly like it. And it turns into, like, massive slack fights between, you know, executives and employees. And it's, it's kind of nice to be in that type of environment. But in terms of design, because we've kind of hired for these people that care and are very passionate and, you know, probably care a little bit too much for their own sake, I think design is at the top of everybody's mind, and we don't, I don't particularly feel like it's ever really left behind. And we do a lot of considerable work on the management team to ensure that we're always we're always in strategic conversations around the product, and they're always like, tightly aligned with engineering and our product management team. So yeah, it can get rough, like definitely communication is always hard. But I don't feel like we lose out on a lot like, you know, in regards to like the tabled decisions, quote, unquote. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Seaworthy is brought to you by Headway. A product focus team for higher, Headway helps companies validate ideas, build out products, and grow through experimentation and technical execution. If you have an idea that you're looking to gain traction on, or a current product you're building that needs expertise with product design or development, check us out@headway.io, and let's make waves. You've written in links quite a bit on on your blog, and in other places on managing designers, right, and helping them level up, we kind of mentioned it earlier, but leveling up to senior level, allowing them to have those opportunities. But can you tell us more about your approach to design leadership and your team at Shopify? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, sure. So we...I think I wrote about this recently, but we're heavily invested into growth. And so our design team or design leadership team, so there's three of us, we spend a lot of time just obsessing about how we can make them better designers. And frankly, the majority of the time is how do we make them better communicators, because we hire for craft. And I think that's very true for a lot of companies, you wouldn't let a designer in a portfolio that you didn't like, at some level. So really, once you get a designer, and hopefully, like, I'm sure there's, there's always room to grow with craft, but they learned that naturally through their projects, or they're really senior level or blah, blah, blah, blah. And so it's really all the other stuff you really need to finance, which is how they communicate with other people, how do they get influence? Or how do they like create the impact that you want them to see based on their work? or How did they facilitate their vision a little bit better. So it's a lot of that stuff. And so our approach to it is, I mean, we always tell them, like, we're only as invested as you are, but we do kind of foster this culture of like, self improvement. And I think that's true across all Shopify. So we have a lot of, I think it's a company culture thing, we have a lot of company talks about getting better at your craft, and like, you know, the even stuff like burning out, which is part of being really good at your craft, I feel. So we talked about that pretty openly and across the company. And within disciplines, we have workshops for them to attend if they're interested in any particular subject area, but then, like your direct lead with, like those directly in direct report, spend a considerable amount of time communicating back and forth about what the report wants out of the career and what the lead wants out of the repor, right?  And I think a lot of it is, yeah, just a good relationship between those two people. So our approach tends to be a little bit hands off. So like, the way I like to look at it is, well, there's like people leadership, and then there's technical leadership. In Shopify design Toronto, we tend to, our leads tend to split the line on both. So we're both technical leads, and people leads as well. So all of us are embedded in at least one project, we're officially named as a contributor. But then we also manage a couple of other designers. And you know, which project we're embedded on is really dependent on resources, and what's needed and stuff. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Right.


Helen Tran:   

And then there's a series of processes and stuff that we set up in order to engage the employees on their own career. Because it's sometimes it's not, it doesn't come naturally to certain people. There are people that are self starters, and love this sort stuff, love to think about, you know, structured learning and growth, and they're obsessed with self improvement, stuff like that. And, but that's a very finite percentage, or people, I think that's 2% of people that have that type of personality. And then the rest of them are just kind of like, hope that they're kind of guidded in the right direction. So even though we're embedded on a couple of projects, we tend to be a little bit hands off in terms of design decisions. So we don't own division, we prefer to kind of see if the crafter or the designer can come up with the vision themselves and guide them through that process. My approach is like, generally that I guide them from distance, but I will let them fall and make their own mistakes, because that's the only way for them to get back up and learn how to, like, get through those periods, it wouldn't make any sense for me to, I guess, take the ownership of the decisions and they don't really learn anything. I feel like a lot of people learn by doing. And part of that is to be les, I guess, of a micromanager and a little bit more of a facilitator. So day to day, what we really do is we watch and observe and see if there's any communication issues that may come up in the future that they can't foresee. Because, you know, they haven't been through this before. Or if there's any, like, problems that they have, that they feel like they're not being supported on, we kind of fill in that gap, whether it means like resources, or they just need someone to talk to you, because we're losing their mind. They, like, really need to, like practice this conversation, this hard conversation that they have to have with someone else. That's that's really how we kind of look at it. But I don't know if anybody shares that. I'm sure there's elements of that, that everybody kind of has.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, no, no, that's really cool. As you mentioned, you know, different projects and getting embedded in in stuff. How do you guys split up? You know, you said, you have a design team in Toronto, there's a couple others, you know, how do you guys split up? Is it focused on, like, user type or user role? Or is it different, you know, is it project by project really? Or is there any type of, I guess, framework or methodology around how you guys, you know, split up design amongst the company on the different initiatives you're working on? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, so company wide, Shopify has project based teams, and you sit with your project team, so we call them pilots. So you sit with the team that's hopefully staffed with a PM, like a project manager, designer, a front end developer, a back end developer, data researcher, data analysis, data engineer, and user researcher and content person. And I'm probably missing like one more...If your team is fully staffed. So it could be less or more of those roles. It could be like multiple back end engineers, depending on the nature of the project. And so we kind of follow that. So what typically happens is, the director of product comes to us and says, hey, we've come up with a new product. And we have this roadmap, and we need someone to help us with the vision or the design. And then we kind of, based on what they said, so like, if it's a vision thing, then we'll look at the our seniors and see, hey, can they help them out with flushing got this problem, or defining this problem little bit better. And if they say, Hey, we just need someone to, like, do some user interface stuff, or some icons, because all the backend stuff for whatever reason that it's like, hey, maybe we can have we can resource like a designer for like, five minutes for this project, or whatever. So it's really project based. But we work pretty closely with the pm team to ensure that all the projects have the resources that they need. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, that's cool. So you mentioned, you know, all of those different moving pieces per project per pod type thing, if it's fully staffed? How do you guys manage your workflow and projects there? Is it agile Scrum, con bond, is it something else? Is it you know, your self baked solution or anything like that?


Helen Tran:   

I'm actually...this is probably one unique thing about Shopify. So every team seems to act like their own startup, which is kind of interesting. So if you're a designer moving from one project to the other, you kind of have like, a week where you're like, Okay, how do you guys do things, so we kind of leave workflow processes and even tools up to the team themselves. And they kind of use this like, democratic process, I guess, to figure out, you know, what the team wants to use or what they would, they would use what would help them go faster. There are some teams that are really against all meetings, and there are some people that love meetings, like, it's just really based on the personalities and who makes up that project. As a company, we tend to be agile, but there are definitely projects that are less agile for reasons like there are projects that can be iterative and are more experimental. And there are projects that can't be that way. Because if we ship it that way, the merchants...it would ruin the merchants day,


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Right, the outcome at the end is...


Helen Tran:   

Yea, so we're very cognizant of how we...we're very merchant focus. So and this is, you know, for good reason. Obviously, if you affect a merchant's day, you could be affecting their cash flow, you could be affecting, you know, any little stress that you add to a merchant will completely derail I guess, the trust that they have with Shopify, so they're very, we're very, very careful with projects that could affect their day to day workflow. So things like there's like a product page in the admin where the, adjust the details of the product, we're careful on pages like that, or the orders index, where merchants are sitting every day, all day there and kind of fulfilling orders and understanding, you know, where to move inventory, all of that stuff, all those big logistics tasks that merchants do every single day. We're very careful about this stuff. And obviously, anything to do with money, we're careful about. So those projects, it's, kind of not okay to be scrappy, as other projects. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, very understandable. 


Helen Tran:   

Yea you can't be scrappy with other people's money.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

I mean, especially as you get to like storefronts and you know, people have ads being driven to things, you know, if a page is down for half an hour, if you have a big merchant, you know, it could be hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad spend out the window.


Helen Tran:   

Yea, our reliability and stability is probably one of our biggest I guess, draw. A lot of our merchants really trust us for that. And we just kind of want to keep going with that. We're doing really well, so let's just keep maintaining. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, that seems like a great thing to be known for.  So kind of along the same lines there, I mean, how do you guys ensure that the business goals, you know...the user outcomes of the designs that you're creating, and design is design as a team is intermingled so that everyone kind of going back to the vision, but I guess a more granular level of the project, you know, how does everyone stay on the same page to make sure that those outcomes are achieved in design is, you know, serving that purpose? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, this is still a work in progress. I think every company that's scaling this quickly, it's this is a whip for everybody. But what generally happens is our director of product will kind of define some themes for the whole year. And he'll say, you know, really want to go mobile first, really want to do this really want to do that, etc, etc. And last year  he had come up with five and at Shopify, you're given kind of free reign, like how you interpret that theme is, is up to you. So you can kind of approach our project management team or our project management team comes up it with themselves based on the business goals, and they'll write out a product briefs. So a product brief covers an entire area of Shopify, that contains many different projects. And an example of that would...let me see..yea, channels - sales channels! So dumb, that's my area. So the product that we work on is sales channel, so that's getting the merchants products all over the internet in the easy way, that's a product and then you would write or the pm would write a product brief about that. So why does this need to exist, what happens if it doesn't exist? How does it affect us, and that, you know, all of the normal project briefy stuff, and then that kind of goes around the teams and we all ensure that it's worth, you know, investing all the resources into it based on, you know, some KPIs that we decide on, or based on some business goals that we have, or etc, etc. And then from there, it's broken down into multiple projects.  So like, if we were to launch this product, how do we get there, and what needs to happen. So those break into the projects, and then from there, the pm works with the design leads, like people like me, and the engineering leads to you vet the project and resource the project, so if it goes ahead, then you know, who would be the best person for this, who has the most experience all that stuff. And so the whole company is, tries to be pretty aligned on that project product level. And then from there, as it breaks into project teams, then design gets integrated into the individual pod groups. So the leads the design leads are generally tasked with understanding the strategic decisions made with the product. And we can push back if we feel like, you know, the product brief is being too prescriptive or right, we have defined the problem area properly. But that's not specific to us, like at any given point in time, a designer whether or not they're a leader or not, Junior, whatever, they can go to the pm and be like, Hey, can you point me to the product rates, and they can feel free to comment on them and say I don't think it's good idea, bla bla bla... Or I think this is a great idea, I'd love to be on this team. So we have a tool internally that we use where it's called, it's our get shit done. Sorry, didn't mean to swear. But that's the name of it. It's our get shit done at scale process. And so you can go look at all the project product briefs and project briefs, and see who's associated with each project, read all of their stuff, look at all of their divisions go through all their slack messages. You can do whatever you want. So to keep everybody transparent, all of that stuff is located in one place.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, that's awesome. 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, so you can... you know, it's not perfect. At Shopify, there tends to be a little bit of a chaotic, we always warn new employees, like, the first thing that we warn them is that things are going to be unstable, and things are going to feel a chaotic and you're gonna have to be okay with it. There's a couple of rounds of onboarding, we warn them like you're going to break in about six months, so your timers on but...see you six months later. You're going to have a breakdown of some sorts where you don't have any idea what's going on. But there's a there's a lot of benefits to that chaos as well. So yeah. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, that sounds sounds good. So you're on the - what did you call it, the sales channels team? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, sales channels.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

So is Amazon, that integration, one of those things that you were part of? I remember seeing that come across?


Helen Tran:   

Yes, it is. Yeah, we have 13 sales channels now. So when I joined, we had just one, obviously, online store. And then we launched Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, we have that partnership with Amazon, we have eBay, etc, etc, etc. So it's very exciting to kind of see that growth from one to 14. And now it's like, now we're working on turning that idea to a platform. So what we've done is we offered a bunch of API's to a third party developer ecosystem, and we're going to see if we can kind of encourage them to build sales channels and open up the opportunities for merchants.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, I could see that. I mean, we work with companies, a while ago, but building things for like Magento. You know, we build stuff for Shopify as well, you know, things that are maybe maybe paid for directly, but then could be contributed back to the platform. Yeah, that's cool. So talking about engineering, how closely are design and engineering at Shopify? I mean, you mentioned there, they're part of it, you know, there's a specific pod once they get there. But I guess overall, is that a good good relationship? I mean, you know, people are managing their own projects, depending on how the pod decides, right? So how typically, what's the, handoff like? Or what's the collaboration? Like, between design and engineering? It's pretty broad, broad question.


Helen Tran:   

Yea, because of the pots are all different, I think it would be awful for me to kind of answer that question. Because I don't really know specifically how every pod operates. So engineering and design, either discipline always seems to have their own roadmap for whatever reason, like engineering, has, engineering dut. Design always has, like, new things that they want to introduce, and all that stuff. So there's always that running in the background. So I think that can get in the way. But we tend to be I mean, yeah, we tend to be close, I don't know what closely knit really means. Like, I don't know if there's a better situation than where we are right now. So the engineers and the designers, you know, if you're ready source to a project, they collaborate on what they're going to launch, whether it's smart to launch that, whether it's reasonable to launch that, you know, in terms of efficiency and time. Yeah, and that's a very open conversation on most of the pods that I've been on, it's never really like one leading the other, you can definitely have some projects where one does have to lead the other. For example, if you're on an API team, it's obvious who leads that team because it's engineering focused. And they may need a designer to kind of build the interfaces to help our partners or merchants, but that tends to be engineering lead for good reason. And then there's like designer type projects where the engineering support maybe isn't full time, maybe it's like five hours. And so the engineer might not be as involved in the decision or they may not want to be involved in the decisions. I mean, there's, there's a lot to be said for, like, whether your contribution is worth, you know, your time, I guess. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Right, or all of the time, having conversations and in the strategy aspect of it, versus just coming in, and, "Yep, this is what you need. Perfect." 


Helen Tran:   

Exactly. And so, like, you can't turn that on all the time. First of all, it's exhausting. And second of all, you would have no understanding of, you know, what impact you made, because you're just kind of spreading it everywhere. And, you know, what's that saying? Where you're like, too many balls in the air? Yeah, I'm pretty...I'm pretty sure I just said it.  That's the thing, there's too many balls in the air, whatever. Yeah. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Well, it sounds like a lot of the, you know, a lot of problems that many startups and other companies see is really solved at Shopify, by focusing on like you said, you know, leading design by helping people become better communicators. You know, I think that's the root of a lot of these things, where these common issues that startups face are communication focused, and not really, you know, process focused or anything, it's does someone really understand that? And if they don't, can they communicate and ask the right questions to figure it out? Which sounds like you guys are, you know, on the right track to cracking that formula. So that's awesome. Are there any tools - you mentioned, your get shit done at scale tool that you have, you mentioned slack? Are there any other tools you use internally that you couldn't live without? Or that you're just, you know, a huge fan of, you know, with such a large team? 


Helen Tran:   

I'm, in love with GitHub, I don't know what it is. I think it's just the tagging system is really awesome. So having conversations and having them documented, there. And also there's that new - they kind of like remade Trello inside GitHub. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Oh, yeah. 


Helen Tran:   

Yeah, sorry Trello. I thought that was pretty funny when it happened. But I actually use that so much now, I love that it's integrated into GitHub. So obviously, the developers use it day to day, but as a designer, I also enjoy it just because it just keeps all of our stuff together. And the engineers tend to be less open to learning new tools when it comes to design and stuff. So it's just easier to work on the platform that they're working on. And an example of that is Invision, I don't think I know, one engineer at Shopify, that's like, man, I love opening up this Invision project. Yeah, so they're usually bitching about how to navigate Invision but if we can all just agree that GitHub is awesome, then that's good with me. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, no, GitHub is yeah, for sure. There's a new design tool abstract coming out that's like GitHub for design, which will be interesting. I think there was a company that approached it probably four or five years ago called layer vault that tried to create - I think...they actually aren't a thing anymore. They recently son senator like it after they launched it. But I think it's interesting, you know, seeing different versions, and how that would, you know...Is that something that is going to rival Invision, I mean, Invision has boards too for approvals, things like that. But I'm just curious to see if you're familiar with that, or have seen anything? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, I have like, doubts in general about these specific design tools. And I question like, I feel like design tools are used, like, are created in a very specific context. So, you know, the designer that created it, is thinking about it, or maybe they're not thinking about company structure. And when I think about the process of a designer, or why I love GitHub, it's because everyone else is there, and my developers are there, my pm is there. And this idea that I need this other tool to interact with my specific discipline, as opposed to my project team is very bizarre to me. And I actually, when I watch my designers work with each other, because we tend to collaborate or give feedback, or solicit feedback, whatever it is, no one seems to be having a problem. And I don't know, like, I want to hear someone explain to me very clearly and succinctly what problem they're solving by creating a design team, like design discipline team, specific tool. I want to know what that's about. Like, I want to know why that needs to happen. Because at Shopify, we kind of use even like, there's some designers here that you sketch in Photoshop, kind of you know, haphazardly, whatever they want, or whatever they prefer. And I'm sure it can, our product designers tend to use Sketch for obvious reasons, we share the same UI kit, but some of them when they're using concept, or doing concept work. They are faster in Photoshop, so they use Photoshop, or they're faster pen and paper. So that's what they use. And for me, and the senior designers, this is especially true we spend a lot of time, more time in Word documents and paper documents, doing strategy and wire frames and all that stuff. So...and I still don't have a problem explaining what I want to happen to another designer. Yeah, the problem is, when I'm trying to get someone else that's not a designer to execute on my vision, right. And so, then that begs the question to me, like, why did I need another tool? Or why did I need to learn another tool? So I always have those doubts. I'm not saying that they haven't figured it out. Yeah, but I'm also saying, I haven't seen a problem. So I don't I don't know. That's a hard question. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

No, yeah, I agree. There's a couple design tools that are out that are..they seem cool. But I don't know that they fill a void in where we are, yeah...


Helen Tran:   

Yea, exactly. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

You know maybe, you know, maybe they'll pivot into something else, or they'll, you know, become more apparent that they fill a need. 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, that's kind of how I felt about big man. And sorry, I don't mean to be shit talking a whole bunch of these design teams. And I'm sure there's really great work, but I'm still... I see the work, and I really want to encourage that type of tool creation in our design industry. But I have a hard time trying to apply it to my team and trying to ensure that, you know, their their time is spent wisely. And, you know, scaling a whole team on a new tool takes a lot of time. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Oh, yeah. 


Helen Tran:   

And you have to have a very good reason for it. And so when I looked at Figma, I was like, yeah, I'm not really sure. Like, because we're in these pod kind of project things. I don't know how many designers would actually need to see another designer execute the visual design in front of their face collaboration to me, typically happens on a strategic level, right? When you're talking about vision, when you're talking about wire frames, and talking about, like, how to do a flow, but on the visual design level, like any designer could do, that was the reason why Junior designers have ramped up on visual design first, because it's the easiest skill set to learn. And then once you've got once you've got the UI kit down, well, especially in a team like ours, where we have a UI kit that's, you know, standard and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We don't reinvent the wheel every single time.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Well that's key too, to being efficient. 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, maybe it makes more sense in an agency company structure where you have like an art director, creative director, and you're kind of like free flowing, coming up wiht ideas.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, I want to give it shot...I don't know, just to see if it spurs anything, you know what I mean? But I know that I don't want a client in the same design file as me at the same time.  Oh, my God, they'd be making the logo bigger perpetually.  Yea, can we do art board just for the logo? Can you make a page with just the logo?  Yea, we need splash page that has just a logo on it, and you can't click anywhere else. Perfect. Yea, so this has been great. Just to kind of close out, what what advice would you give entrepreneurs or startup founders or startup teams that are looking to take their business to the next level with design and scale a design team? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea be careful with your first hire, it will set the mood for the rest of your design team. So your first hire on a design team that is tasked with scaling, it must be senior level - must be able to manage your people on the people side and not necessarily on the technical side. Because as your business scales, you're going to find that more of the problems, I feel, are going to be more emotional or more human based than the technical problems. You can always teach technical skills. You can always put your designers into more conferences, you can always hook them up with other designers in the community and make them better crafters, but it's very, very hard to start a design team with poor communicators, low morale, unhappy culture, that stuff. 


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, that's great. Awesome. Focus on people first. 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, people first take care of your people, and they'll take care of you.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Yea, cool. Well, thanks a lot Helen. Where can people find you and stay plugged into what you're doing? 


Helen Tran:   

Yea, you can find me on Twitter @tranhelen. Or you can find me on my dot com at tranhelen.com or you can find me on Instagram, @tranhelen - @tranhelen everywhere.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Perfect. Well, thanks again. I appreciate it- anything else as we go out here.


Helen Tran:   

Oh, yeah. One more thing - we're always hiring. So if you're super talented, tweet me on Twitter or DM me your portfolio or even if you're a fad or a backend engineer or European and you want to get on the Shopify rocket, go ahead and contact me on Twitter.


Andrew Verboncouer: 

Thanks for listening to Seaworthy. Connect with us and ask questions on Twitter @seaworthyfm. Make sure you subscribe, and if you enjoyed it, leave a review on iTunes. Sail forth and make waves! 


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