My guest today is Harrison Wheeler. Harrison is a Design Manager at LinkedIn and one of the most thoughtful and outspoken design voices in the industry. Before LinkedIn, Harrison scaled the design team at BaseCRM, which was acquired by ZenDesk in 2018. In this conversation we discussed what “having a seat at the table” means, being accountable to your customers, building teams and culture and the importance of speaking up on social justice issues in the workplace. Harrison is a good friend of mine and every time I chat with him I always gain a new and unique perspective. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Harrison.
(5:37) - Having a CEO with a design background
(7:05) - Accountability and design’s role
(9:32) - Working with international and remote teams
(13:15) - Product Managers and their role in empowering teams
(15:30) - Building teams and culture
(20:46) - Systemic racism in the industry - “The Design Community Must Not Stay Silent”
Dan Wu: [00:00:00] Hey everyone. I'm Dan Wu and welcome to The Reorg. Every other week, I'll bring on a guest and discuss everything from organizational structure to leadership, to building community and culture. I believe that a business is only as good as the people behind it. You can find more episodes and subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter @reorgpod.com.
My guest today is Harrison Wheeler. Harrison is a design manager at LinkedIn, and one of the most thoughtful and outspoken design voices in the industry before LinkedIn Harrison scaled the design team at base CRM, which was acquired by Zendesk in 2018. In this conversation we discussed what having a seat at the table means being accountable to your customers, building teams and culture, and the importance of speaking up on social justice issues in the workplace. Every time I chat with Harrison, I always gained a new and unique perspective. I hope you enjoy my conversation with him. I'm Dan Wu and welcome to The Reorg .
Gotta hit record. I do that. We're good now. All right, everyone. Welcome to the reorg. I'd like to introduce my guest and longtime friend Harrison Wheeler. Born and raised in Milwaukee. Harrison became interested in computers at an early age. He went to the university of Iowa, which is where we met go Hawks). He studied art and design there. He started a concert promotion company in Iowa city. And shortly after that, he moved to Chicago in 2013 to join base CRM as an interaction designer and eventually design manager. And now Harrison is at LinkedIn. Where he's currently a design manager on the marketing solutions team. Harrison also has a freelance company. He runs his own podcast called Technically Speaking. And if he's not busy with those things, he's probably flying his drone around. welcome to the show, Harrison.
Harrison Wheeler: [00:02:03] Thanks. You did your research!
Dan Wu: [00:02:05] I that's part of my shtick is getting my guests a good intro on the podcast.
Harrison Wheeler: [00:02:09] It's good to be on the pod, man. I remember our times back at The Foundation. Which is. Is that 13 years now? It's not 13 years ago, seven years ago.. 10 years ago. I don't know. It's 10 years ago. It was a decade ago. Time flies.
Dan Wu: [00:02:27] Yeah, a third of my life. Third of your life, basically. Cool.
I wanted to bring you on because you have a good breadth of experience between your time at growth stage companies at Base CRM, and now at LinkedIn where you know, more mature products, more mature organization. The podcast is called The Reorg. Where we discuss everything from organizational structure to design, to management, to leadership. And I think you've got a lot to share in regards to all those topics. we can start wherever you want, but I thought talking about. Your time at Base. And just from the beginning, like joining Base, what was the state of the design team, the state of the organization, the product. and we'll just go from there.
Harrison Wheeler: [00:03:12] Yeah, man. Dan again, I love the concept of The Reorg and I love the name. and I'm very honored to be the second guest on your show. In terms of base, that was a, that's a really great story of just, the different challenges and in being in a, in a. startup, that's going through a growth stage early to grow stage. Right. and bass is a company that was, very focused and understood the importance of design and. that was actually one of the major selling points of our app, of our experience, right? Most of the industry at that time was desktop. Only a lot of solutioning was very antiquated, long contractual. We were just, the industry was starting to shift into, the software sales, like subscription models. And so a lot of ways we were. Ahead of our time in terms of marrying, working on mobile platforms. Being able to work with multiple teams and have visibility in terms of those efforts. and then obviously I think for when it comes to having mobile experience has driven around enterprise, that's just like a different set of challenges when it comes to user experience. And so we're really at the forefront of a lot of those things. And the general sort of company, had sort of two locations, right? So one base was in Chicago. and then the other base was in Poland. And mostly in the United States was our UX team. a lot of your primary business functions and in Poland was mainly our engineering team. there's the challenges around. cultural differences, there's challenges around time zones. and then just having a product development, R and D that was in two different continents. those are challenges within itself. I think in terms of the design team, when I joined, he was a pretty strong team. I think there were about, five designers between marketing. And, and user experience.
Dan Wu: [00:05:08] Yeah. And it's so it sounds Design was an important piece of the product and had a seat at the table. I know I was listening to one of your latest podcast and you talk about having a seat at the table as design, and it sounded like for base. That was important to them. And so design was always a part of the conversation. So could he talk about that a little bit?
Harrison Wheeler: [00:05:28] Having a seat at the table when your CEO is a designer himself, And really values that. I think it's a lot easier and I have had that opportunity to work with a lot of very talented designers and learn from a lot of very talented designers as well. I think in terms of just like the output in the finish. and it came through the prototypes that we were designing I think having a seat at the table it encompasses really having those checkpoints throughout your product development life cycle. thinking about things from a research perspective early on, understanding the market. Understanding, heuristics, like how are other people interacting with the team? Grew the challenges and friction that they have, To. Also, I think it's important. When you think about strategy by product strategy and being able to prioritize what you're going to focus your time on. obviously this kind of plays through the opposite of that. But then additionally, to having that accountability and that seat at the table. When you're having engineering and conversations. Then ultimately once things are actually into production, how's it performing. Where are there certain areas that we may need to focus on or reiterate? it is in fact, a role and a responsibility. When you start really thinking about quality and the output of that experience. To really be in every single part of the process.
Dan Wu: [00:06:48] Yeah. You mentioned something interesting about accountability . As someone in design, how does the product org or the company hold design accountable for the work you guys do? Like how do you know when it's not going well, I guess, right?
Harrison Wheeler: [00:07:00] That's a great question. So, I'm going to, before I even go into this, I think it's important. For everyone to understand that, the final output or your product is everyone's responsibility. Okay. And I think some of the highest performing teams. Realizing that they are partners in terms of achieving this goal. Is important. Okay. And I think respecting sort of the different areas and, understanding that everyone has their there. They're there. Their opinion, that is grounded in terms of, their perspective in terms of their role, all plays a part of the consideration. I think. I think for, some of the work that I really tried to have our designers really understand his design is all about bringing these different perspectives together. I stay away from. Our responsibility as an art, It's all of our responsibility. I think the moment that organizations recognize that, that design is a first-class citizen, along with the product along with engineering. it's equally as important, right? when it comes to planning, for instance, we don't want to work on waterfall sort of products or processes. Understanding that design or engineering has a dependency on design. Then PM. Needs to plan ahead of time. So design has the time. So research has the time. to be able to operate in those functions. So engineering can now focus with more clarity and so that product can focus on the problems. and that really matter, and really prioritized driving value to two people that are using it.
Dan Wu: [00:08:36] Yeah. I love that. This idea of sharing in the goals. The best companies out there are ones that have shared goals and not ones where you're nitpicking who is accountable for certain pieces of the output and the outcome.
Harrison Wheeler: [00:08:51] Yeah. and, one more thing I'd probably add onto there is even despite that we may be in different roles in our organization and we might have different contracts on paper, right, the contract for everybody is the customer. And so that should always be top of mind when walking into any type of solutioning that you're doing.
Dan Wu: [00:09:12] Awesome. I think for base you talked about how you had a presence in Poland. Could you talk about what teams were set up in Poland, were there certain competencies that made more sense for it to be organized and running in Poland versus Chicago.
Harrison Wheeler: [00:09:28] Yeah, man. I think it's important to just understand when it comes to user experience and The community around that. there's a very strong presence of that in the United States, especially around that time. And so being present where that was, I think that was super important. I think also from a business perspective, Being in technology being United States. Was also very important, right? you probably know this when you're working in enterprise applications, a lot of your growth is due to partnerships that you have. And so I think proximity to that played a really important role. in terms of pulling a lot of our engineering function and cohort was out there. And I think it's really interesting, just looking back and thinking about where we are right now, in terms of, of working remotely and will likely be in this for the next year in. Obviously some companies have made announcements. That there's they have longer-term plans have a remote workforce. I think it's really interesting because I think if I look back at that time, I would probably say there weren't as many tools that had the maturity that they do today to be able to facilitate remote work. And I think like today, for instance, like when it comes to design, You have tools like Figma, you have tools like envision you have, framer is web-based right. You've got, super mature Google docs. you've got zoom. That's pretty reliable. And you have a lot of tools right now that can really facilitate that. I think we're really on the precipice of allow those things, back in 2013, and so a lot of it was really learning by doing, and I think. If I can reflect on the things that really helped. I think video conferencing, having times at work very well for our remote teams. Of course it might be the evening in the us are morning in Poland or vice versa. but that was something that we knew that we couldn't change. and On things that you can't change, you have to make do with it. And I think that was an early realization for a lot of us. and then when it came to the actual production, that was just something that we really learn, When envision came around, that was a real, huge game changer for us because now we could work asynchronously. When it came to design. and that was pretty huge. And then when we got into design systems, when it came to quality, that was something that now became something that was very reliable, where we, again, We didn't necessarily have to be with our engineers. One-on-one every single time. I think those are some of the dynamics we likely industry-wise, we likely won't revert to those. they're going to get a lot better. but I think one of the things I want to add to that. is I think in hindsight, It's really important to really focus on how you can start to facilitate conversations around, creativity or problem solving. and I think a lot of those conversations It's very difficult to have back then, because there just weren't enough tools to help facilitate those.
Dan Wu: [00:12:19] . Yeah, I think. Creativity and problem solving is something that everyone strives to have in their roles. In terms of having fulfilling work. that's to me, that's paramount is having that autonomy for creativity.
Harrison Wheeler: [00:12:35] But yeah. and look, I will say that. When it comes to creativity, everyone should have an opportunity to set to exercise that, that's why I think like facilitation is always important. And. I, I always think about whenever I meet with cross-functional kind of partners. you've worked in product management. Before, and I think it is a very document, heavy kind of function. And. There's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes when communicating concepts, the best way to communicate are through visuals. And I think if we start thinking of each other, as partners and working together, there are more opportunities for creativity to happen. . It's important to understand that everyone had a seat at the table does have their own perspective in their vision. And it's important to get that out. To understand where, you lie as an organization. And so I would probably challenge that a bit where I think a lot of folks really do. Cause you know, Everyone works in their own functions. They know a lot about their particular function. And I think there's so many ways to help really bring that up to the top through generative type exercises. And a lot of folks may refer to this as. Design thinking. there's a few things that really come to mind where I think you can have facilitate those types of conversations.
Dan Wu: [00:13:58] I wanted to talk about. As a PM myself. Can you talk about where PMs, maybe overstepped the boundaries of what a PM is doing? where should a PM's a work stop. And a designer's work start because I feel like. To me, this is where PMs fall into a trap in terms of the responsibilities that they take on is they try and do a little bit of everything and get into, they don't stay in their lane. Can you talk about that? Because I think delineation of responsibilities is key to having a successful running organization and company.
Harrison Wheeler: [00:14:32] yeah, man. I'm so look. That is a very difficult question to provide an answer to. and I've worked with a ton of different PM's and a lot of PM's just have different working styles. But I think it's important of, I think the conversation should maybe shift in terms of how can PM's empower their team to, Be more, effective. And. I think empowerment, like I always focused on the empowerment piece because that's where people learn. That's where you as a PM, learning how to delegate, it's going to be important. But then also that's important for engineering to be able to provide perspective. Maybe disagree, maybe designed, provided. perspective and have a conversation. And really respect those conversations and start to understand the pros and cons. And so I think the empowerment piece is going to be important. I think, Understanding and prioritizing the why. And in this same vein, everyone in a sense is a designer in that regard. And so just like designers should be held to the same standard of being able to explain the why behind the decision making. I think PMs need to have that and be able to exercise that. Cause it's going to be important. You're working with cross-functional teams, right? I think empowerment explaining the why. I think that's just a good sort of set of principles. for PM's to work with, I don't think there's necessarily like a cutoff line.
Dan Wu: [00:16:05] Sure. Yep. No, that makes sense. I wanted to shift the conversation, two. Building teams and culture. Cause I know this is something that. You're passionate about. you scaled up a team at Base, and now you're a design manager at LinkedIn. there's so many places to start in terms of building teams. but I know you've written about this as well, in terms of what do you need in place? How do you determine how you staff. So could you talk about your process for building and scaling teams within design and just more broadly?
Harrison Wheeler: [00:16:40] That's that's a very broad question in my opinion. I think there's a, a few. There's a few facets to it and there's a couple of angles. I think there's how do you scale design around from an IC perspective? Right. I think there's, there's also, how do you scale design as a manager in that role? and. And then I think a part of it is also the culture piece. I'm a big fan of frameworks. I'm a big fan of getting the team to understand different types of methods. and the reason that I like thinking about it in those ways is because from a framework perspective, there's some guidance to be able to approach. Things from an, things, if they're ambiguous, right. Make sense out of something. And then I think from the methods piece of like, where can I apply those things? And. I, it's important to understand that when it comes to. Design or any sort of problems based out you're working in, you're going to be working with constraints. And so you're going to need some have trade-offs and so you need to have. You need to be able to understand what sort of different methods processes that you might use. and so a lot of the ways I say, Hey, here are the different ways that we can approach this. Which one do you think is the best, right? Because I think it's important for the designer to take that leap, take that decision. Because that's where they're going to learn from it. Okay. I refer to one of my, one of my, one of my writings I've heard is something as this hierarchy of innovation. And so if I really think about the hierarchy of innovation, if I was to tell you. What that is, it is actually, is also, is actually a culmination of frameworks, process methods. where you can start to learn these types of things. So it starts with. For a manager creating time for your designers. Providing them with the tools and access to understand their problem space, three, having like the tooling around tracking, right around design systems to enable them to move a little bit faster, to get to their decision. Making's. Decision-making a lot quicker and empower their team to also go along in that journey. And I think in that third piece is our fourth piece is really how we can take educated guests, Guesses, or maybe we start testing. Our concepts to me to be tweak here and there. But everything that you're doing is a culmination of those types of things. And I think from a cultural piece, that third piece, So there's a few things, right. I think it's important for designers to really be fired up about the work that they're doing right in and be fired up that. they're learning right? The moment that they step in the door, by the time they leave. They have a completely new outlook in terms of what their potential is. And understanding these types of things, being able to apply them. Having that aha moment in that those small wins over time, add up to be huge things. And I think that all plays a really big role. And then for me, when it comes to culture, these are people. And so how can I help empower them to be their best selves? Because they're working with us eight hours a day. Now with COVID 19 and working from home. they're the life is right there. And so they're coming every, all of this they're carrying with them. before they even approach to their work. those are really important. Pieces to me. I know that was a lot, but again, I think again, it's that the IC thinking about what that career path looks like. Was that learning path look like. What does it look like in terms of scaling? around methods, frameworks that can empower the team to make decisions on their own. That third piece is really the culture. Like how can we see the team grow and how can we help them reach their best potential? And I think with that, they're going to bring their own personality. And so I'm not in any way, shape or form controlling the culture. it is all with them.
Dan Wu: [00:20:37] There's so much good stuff that came from that, in terms of. Applying frameworks and methods for your teams to apply, I think is. tying that back to the creativity in the work. You're not mandating ways that they do their job. You're giving them frameworks to think about how to do their job. . And then this concept of humanizing your team. these are people, we're all people and. I like that you think about, The culture is not something that you can really build yourself. It's something that. We all build together on a team. speaking of culture. you wrote a piece earlier this year. Shortly after. George Floyd's death. The article was titled, 'The design community must not stay silent'. And I think the point of the piece was that, as employees and leaders and people that care about these issues that are out there in the world today. how do we ensure that where we're addressing these in the work that we do and how we work with others. So I would be remiss to not give you a chance to speak about your thoughts that you shared in that article
Harrison Wheeler: [00:21:41] sure. I think just reflecting on that, I definitely was in a, I was in a very emotional state when I wrote that. And, it wasn't a state that I hadn't felt before. there have obviously been a number of killings of black folks at the hand of police and, growing up in the Midwest, just being around and around. Seeing the effects of systemic racism over time. I think it would be a disservice for me to not speak out about an industry that I'm so passionate about. that I love. But yet not see any representation or growth in representation. And really the angle that I wanted to go with that is saying, look. As an industry, we talk about, inclusivity, diversity, building empathy. and yet our teams don't really. they don't make that up. they're not made up of diverse and inclusive sort of teams. There's a lot of work to be done and you see this time over time. When companies released their diversity reports. And I think with the death of George Floyd and. the subsequent, black lives matter movement, a lot of companies. We're starting to get into the conversation. But the representations to wasn't there. Right. And, I wanted it to be. I think it was an important conversation. And I wanted to really bring that up as, as a leader in this industry. and. I think it's important for all of us to be able to speak out about these types of things. Because if you don't, then, it's just going to fly under the radar and we're going to be back in the same place that we have been, and that we're seeing, And I did that to share my voice, hopefully inspire others and really get organizations to think about what their, practice, what they preach. Right and to anybody listening right now, regardless of, what role that you're in and years of experience, it is important. It is so important too. Make your voice be heard. It might be awkward. It might not come out right the first time, but that's why you do it. You need to do it in practice. And somebody is going to see you. And they're going to speak out. Right. and then obviously if you're in a leadership role that has an impact. On 10. Hundreds thousands of people. And I think these are the small things that you can do. to, Inspire action. Now the other piece is to actually put the action in practice. And that's like where I left it, because I think ultimately is up for these organizations to do. and if it's something that, they really believe in. and that they're preaching around, there. around their mission statements. Then their organizations need to reflect that.
Dan Wu: [00:24:38] Yeah. It's just the start of the conversation, and it's just given a heightened sense of awareness to all of the issues that we're facing. so plenty of work to be done, but. we appreciate your leadership and your voice. Maybe we wrap it there. this was.
Great. And where can people find you and then any plugs for events you got coming up? I know you're like you're speaking on half
a dozen events every week. shout out to the people.
Harrison Wheeler: [00:25:05] I don't know. I don't know. I don't know if it's that many. So weak. so yeah, you can find me on Twitter. Instagram. @hmwheele.
you can also check out my podcast. technically speaking. which is @gettechnical.io. So actually just recording season two right now there's 10 fresh episodes for you all to check out with designers from all around the or design practitioner practitioners. coaches. Researchers, from all around the world. So you can check that out right now. subscribe on Spotify. Hi iTunes. or Apple podcasts, not iTunes anymore. and then of course you can connect with me on linkedin.com. So I have many places and Harrison miller.com. there are many places for you to
connect with me. moving into the yeah. Moving into the end of the year. I don't really have too many, Too many, Too many events left. So I'm actually taking a break there, but in 2021, I'm looking to start up some cohort mentorship on good technical dot iOS. So if you're interested head there, sign up for the newsletter. And yeah.
Dan Wu: [00:26:20] Awesome. Any lasting thoughts for the listeners today?
Harrison Wheeler: [00:26:24] I'm excited about this podcast. I think, in terms of how the build organizations. it's actually not a topic that you hear a lot of specifically in specific verticals. I really enjoyed this conversation. feel free to reach out to Dan and tweet him. If you want to dive in a little bit deeper. But that's it.
Dan Wu: [00:26:43] As always. Thanks everyone for joining the show today with me. If you'd like to hear more, please subscribe to our mailing list at reorgpod.com.