2020 to 2021 was the most challenging yet formative period of my career. I led the Uber Eats Merchant team through crisis, all while learning how to be a manager for the first time.
A moment of crisis
In April 2020, I joined Uber Eats from Google as an individual contributor, looking to learn new skills and move faster. And I did, but in ways I hadn't at all expected. The Covid pandemic was just starting to affect tech companies, but no one had any idea what we were dealing with yet.
I was told that I'd have to wait a couple weeks to meet my new coworkers in person. Those couple weeks became a year.
From there, things only escalated. A month into my tenure, in response to the changing market, Uber announced layoffs and shut down longer term efforts. The layoffs majorly affected the design team, including our head of design.
The pandemic caused Uber's market demand to shift abruptly from rides to food delivery. But the Uber Eats business was still not profitable. The remaining Eats team was asked to halt long-term efforts in favor of urgent business optimizations. Sensible, but ultimately creatively frustrating.
With morale at a low, much of the design team left the company in the following months. In the fall, each of the Uber Eats design managers left in quick succession.
It was at this moment that I was asked to step in and manage the Merchant team. I said yes. The team needed a leader with some continuity, and who was I to turn down a good personal challenge?
The personal challenge
Well, it was suddenly on me to keep the team afloat, and I had no idea how.
Actual slide from telling this story internally in 2021
As an introverted, typically fairly independent designer, I wrestled with a lot of self-doubt about whether I was fit to lead people. It was reassuring to realize that my motivation was right: I care deeply about people and their careers.
But even caring that much made things tricky. Bad product decisions can be easily iterated upon, but bad management can disorient real people's careers. It was paralyzing.
I didn't have much mentorship from within the organization, so I ate up whatever books and podcasts I could find. And then, eventually, I got over my risk aversion and tried a lot of things. Some worked, some didn't, but I learned from them all.
Over time, I figured out how to best lead the team and I learned to love it.
The team had a lot of concerns. Figuring out where to focus my energy was a little like product development: user research and prioritization. I spent lots of time listening to the team about their concerns, both individually and as a group.
We ran a retrospective on our processes and output
Some recurring themes emerged: staffing, belonging, pride, and recognition.
These themes gave me focus in these initial crisis months and continued to influence my work throughout my two years managing the team.
The issue: The team was critically understaffed. The team had been 10 when I had joined in April, but by the time I inherited the team, we were down to 4.
My approach here was twofold.
Hiring: I jumped head-first into the hiring process. The recruiting team was even more understaffed that our team, so I did whatever I could to accelerate the process. I created our read.cv team page to widen our sourcing funnel. I took on the initial portfolio screens that recruiters typically do. I wrote talking points for conversations with candidates. I created guidelines on evaluation for interviewers. Working this way, I relatively quickly scaled the team to a healthier size of 7.
Workload management: While we addressed hiring, I set expectations with product managers that we wouldn't be able to support all the work they'd planned. I provided guidance to designers around how they could "own their time": determining the relative priority of their projects and communicating their needs to their collaborators.
Guidance on prioritizing projects in moments of scarce resourcing
The issue: With each designer supporting a different part of our product portfolio, they didn't know what one another was working on. And as new designers joined the team, they didn't know one another as people, either.
We created personal "user manuals" to share our working preferences. This one is mine.
We plotted our skills to understand how we could learn from one another
Early on, I ran a little "virtual offsite" that established a space of trust and vulnerability: sharing about our skills, preferred ways of working, and personal backgrounds.
To combat the transactional nature of remote work, I started up a social hour every Friday for the team to play games and chat about the weekend. Once we were able to return to the office, this evolved into coordinated in-office days and lunches.
I evolved our critique format to include both lightweight sharing for visibility and deeper discussions.
As the team grew to a more sustainable size, I found opportunities to allocate multiple designers to larger projects: not just to make the work better, but to encourage learning from each other.
The issue: Because of the company's focus on business optimizations, the team was having to ship pared down MVPs that they weren't proud of. With each team of product managers and engineers focused on a specific part of the project, only the design team was noticing inconsistencies in the product.
On the most important projects, I upheld a high quality bar, providing direct and detailed feedback.
I influenced the Merchant org to make time for cross-platform initiatives, such as a redesign of our navigation.
I started a little design systems squad to standardize our patterns. While we didn't have the resourcing for a dedicated team, I identified designers who were eager to carve out time for this sort of work.
The issue: The team felt overlooked within the company - that the company wasn't paying attention to the Merchant org and the Merchant org wasn't paying attention to design.
In conversation with the rest of the Merchant org leaders, I identified areas where the design team could provide unique proactive value to the org. We ended up using a design sprint to identify a 3-year vision for our product suite.
I took every opportunity presented to raise awareness within the company about the Merchant org - such as speaking about our work at a company all hands about our users' pain points and our solutions. My advocacy, along with others', contributed to raising the visibility of merchants among the Uber's top leadership.
The Merchant Design team weathered some very challenging times together through mutual support, adaptability, and above-and-beyond ownership. We came out the other side healthier, tight-knit, and high performing. I'm immensely proud of the team.
For me, it was a crash course in leadership that made me into the person I am now - emphasizing autonomy, ownership, gratitude, and support.