Accepting discomfort leads to growth with Product Designer at Netflix, Andrew Lucas-Walsh

Juraj Mihalik

Hi Andrew. Let’s start with who you are and what you do. What is your role today?

Originally from the UK, I’m an LA-based product designer, helping make software to support the content production process at Netflix’s studio. During my career I’ve worked at agencies, really small startups, I managed a couple of design teams at Facebook and now I’m digging back into life as an individual contributor. I’ve worked on consumer products, developer tools, healthcare software and tools for small businesses. I love the variety of having worked across a range of domains, but in general I find problem spaces that are underserved by technology the most interesting to work in.

What was your design journey like?

In terms of creative inspiration, I’ve always loved architecture, photography and illustration. My Grandpa was an architect and one of my early memories is a print of Notre Dame du Haut, a modernist church that was hung in their house. That print alone is probably the reason I love modernist architecture so much. It obviously didn’t lead to a career in architecture, but it did give me an appreciation of the cities we live in and the people that design them.

Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut (Photo credit)

Although I get a lot of enjoyment out of my job, I’ve always looked for other creative outlets. Product design is often so research, strategy and systems-based, that it’s a very different type of fulfillment. When I was earlier in my career, I’d draw regularly, which isn’t something I’ve made as much time for lately, but I’ll definitely return to it at some point. Photography is one thing that’s been a constant since I was a kid.

A selection of older illustration work.

I studied a degree in Graphic Design at UWE in Bristol. The course fell on the more traditional side of things, we were learning about typography, print and layout design. These are all good foundational things, but the course didn’t really click with me. This was 2005-2008 and the Internet was exploding around me, yet the course felt really removed from anything online.

By the time I graduated I was pretty jaded and confused about where to start my career. I’d just got a degree in graphic design, doing lots of print design that I wasn’t super excited about. On top of that, during the last year or so I’d drifted into making a lot of film and animation-based work.

I applied for two very different internships. One was at a film production company and the other was at a digital design agency called E3 (now Great State). Long story short, I didn’t get to work on nature documentaries. But, interning at a design agency did reengage me, giving me a whole new perspective and passion for the type of work I could be doing.

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After my internship I worked at a company called Omni Digital in Bristol for around 3 years. I was mainly focussed on web design, but Omni also had a film production wing where I ended up taking on quite a lot of work. I could be doing anything from batching in footage from a shoot, basic edits, through to resizing and converting photos for a print project. Although I wasn’t focussed on one thing, I loved it and felt like I was continually growing.

That period ended up feeling like my real design education. I’m hugely thankful to Omni for giving me a chance when I had zero experience. Investing in young designers is such a crucial part of developing our industry. It’s something I became passionate about whilst at Facebook, where I helped run the internship and new grad programs. It’s easy to take for granted the experience you have and how impactful that can be when shared with people starting out in their careers.

I’m hugely thankful to Omni for giving me a chance when I had zero experience.

After Omni, the next 3 years were a shift away from designing client websites, towards product design. I’d moved to London and joined a small startup building healthcare software. This is where I fell in love with designing products that help solve tangible problems for people. In this case, providing people with easy access to healthcare professionals and their medical records, plus a suite of tools for managing hospitals and GP surgeries.

Cambridge Healthcare patient record
Cambridge Healthcare enterprise health analytics dashboard

Then came the part of the startup rollercoaster that I’m sure is familiar to many. After working on a suite of products for a good while, immersing into the problem space and working with a passionate team, I watched the startup run out of money, fail and collapse. After putting in a lot of work it was a real shame, but it’s also not a rare story.

Let’s talk about Facebook. Why did you decide to join their team?

I joined Facebook midway through 2014. Back then I think the design team was less than a hundred people. That was still orders of magnitude larger than any design team I’d ever worked on, but a fraction of what it’s grown to today. A large part of why I was interested in working at Facebook is that I’d only ever worked in relatively small companies, with a handful of other designers. I wanted to learn from a larger community and Facebook had a lot of designers that I really looked up to.

I worked in quite a few different areas of the company over the four years I was there. There’s a lot of opportunities and you can pretty much reinvent your role over and over. I started working on ads tools for small businesses in London and then moved to San Francisco and worked on the Pages product, which covers profiles for things like musicians, charities, media companies and businesses. Then, the last team I was on was a part of Messenger, building products for families.

I learnt a lot during my time there. Initially I focussed on craft, going deep on Quartz Composer and later Framer, so I could build better, more realistic prototypes to aid in storytelling and research. That’s something that’s built into the DNA of the design team at Facebook and you get to learn from a lot of people that are way better than you with those tools.

This is a project I designed and built overnight at a Facebook hackathon.

One takeaway from my time there, is that unless you want to remain static in your career, you always need to be learning and finding opportunities that allow you to develop. This requires lots of honest conversations with people you trust, your manager, coworkers and yourself. Everyone talks about how growth comes from getting uncomfortable and it is generally the only way. What ever that new thing is, you’re likely going to be afraid of failing at it.

Around 2 years into my time at Facebook I transitioned into a new role as a design manager. There were days I felt so out of my depth I was convinced I was doing a horrible job. On other days, I could see that the structure and advice I was giving to the people on my team was really helping them. Being stuck in that uncomfortable zone for long periods of time is really hard, but once you’re 6 or 12 months down the line and you look back, you can see the progress.

Working at large companies like Facebook gives you a master class in collaboration. Nothing gets done at Facebook, or at any company, without the people around you and a whole load of other people on connected teams that you need to work with. To navigate these roles you need to be highly collaborative and approach your work with low ego. Whether you’re evangelizing a design system or working on ambiguous, cross-team projects involving many people, success is rarely achieved by one person heads down in Sketch. The further you progress in your career, the more you realize that influence and impact comes from open discussions and collaboration.

Working at large companies like Facebook gives you a master class in collaboration.

My last takeaway is about work-life balance. I’m not gonna pretend like I always had it, but it’s important to think about what you want your boundaries to be. No matter whether you work at a startup or a big tech company like Facebook or Netflix, these can be really stressful environments to work in. At the end of the day these are really good jobs, we’re insanely lucky to work at companies like these, but you have to have a life outside of work.

Moving forward, what inspired you to take on your role as a Product Designer at Netflix? What did you aim for for after Facebook?

Moving on from Facebook wasn’t an easy choice, I’d been there for a while and so in some ways I was comfortable. But, a number of things were pushing me to look elsewhere. It was hard to ignore the big issues the company had at that time. This was part of it, but wasn’t the only reason I started looking. I loved the people-side of managing, but missed contributing as directly to product. Thinking about going back into an IC role, I felt as though I wanted a fresh start in a new problem space.

I honestly didn’t know a lot about Netflix’s design team until I started researching the roles they had available and meeting with people from the design team. One thing that became clear, is that behind the Netflix product, there’s a whole ecosystem of products and people that power the TV and movie making process. I joined the Studio XD team, which builds a suite of tools to scale the operations behind programming, planning, production, post-production, through to taking a title live.

I love how boldly Netflix has moved into the original content space and it’s pretty cool to work for a company that’s already brought me a lot of joy through hours of content. I can’t really show any of the specifics I’m working on, but we’re working on some really interesting problems in this space (and we’re hiring!).

What is the design team culture at Netflix like?

It’s been really awesome to see how the Netflix culture underpins the way the company works. “Freedom and responsibility” is a central tenet of the culture and one of the main things I’ve experienced as being different to other places I’ve worked. This is entrusted to everyone and it creates an environment where individuals and teams can be autonomous and make decisions without being bogged down by process or unnecessary oversight. For design that means we look for people that are driven, entrepreneurial and can come into a space and help figure out what needs to be done. This goes all the way from deciding what should be worked on, through to the processes you and your team will use to get the work done.

By the way, what’s your favorite show?

I love anything to do with food. Some recent favorites are Ugly Delicious and Salt Fat Acid Heat. They both tell amazing stories about different cultures through food. I loved Bandersnatch and that whole approach to storytelling and I’ve just been watching Workin' Moms, which is hilarious.

Did you have any good mentors that helped you shape your design career?

Early on at Omni, when I was starting out, I would sit with Danjai Motee, the senior designer and just observe how he worked and ask him questions. I was learning the basics about designing for the web. I’d take work he’d done and then recreate it in a new file, layer by layer. This was a great way to learn the craft. Today, that really just represents a slice of what you need to develop as a product designer. But, the hands on mentorship part remains the same. If you spend a lot of time with experienced people, you can learn about how to operate on a team and pick up the basics of research, structuring your work, presenting, strategy, planning, all the different pieces that make up the role.

At Facebook I was really lucky to have a series of mangers that were quite influential on me. They put trust in me and pushed me into growth situations, with opportunities I may have not jumped straight into myself. It’s an approach I sought to model during my time as a manager.

Any advice for young/starting designers?

When you’re starting out, whether you’ve gone to university or not, it’s completely natural to not know what you want to do, or where you should start. At that point in your career, the most important thing is to be curious, ready to learn and look for people that can give you mentorship and guidance. It’s great to try things out, go really broad and figure out what you like doing or what you’re good at. Big companies can be great places to start out and learn, as there’s a ton of people and systems in place to give you support, but it really doesn’t matter what size company you join. There’s no one path, what matters is that you find people that can help you grow, working on something that interests you.

Bonus Question: What’s your favorite way to eat an avocado?

On top of a fish taco.

Want to stay in touch with Andrew? Find him on Twitter, Instagram, or check his website.

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