Why I Learned Design as an Engineer
Every engineer should learn an adjacent skill. I heard this term used by Anne-Laure Le Cunff to refer to a skill that is complementary to your current skill set. When I was in college, I took a human-computer interaction class that showed me how I could create a better technical product by understanding design. That experience convinced me to go deeper in design and make it an adjacent skill.
You might ask, why? Some of the root of product development is lost in a larger organization. Divisions become siloed, and there is less cross-functional collaboration. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, even larger organizations can benefit from ICs pushing past the boundaries a bit, and developing empathy for other disciplines. Especially in your own career growth, it can be super valuable — most people don’t invest in broadening their skillset, and it can really set you apart from the rest.
“Learn just enough about visual design to be dangerous” — Meng To
This quote from the founder of DesignCode.io, who embraces combining tech and design, clarifies that it only takes learning a bit to increase your value by a whole lot.
Since I changed my mindset to one that believed I could be someone who understood both code and design, I feel like I have opened many doors outside of work and within my midsize company. Here are three reasons why I learned design as an engineer, that may spark some inspiration on how to think about your adjacent skill.
1. You think more about the user needs
When you’re an engineer working on your feature or project, it’s sometimes easy to get lost in the implementation details. It’s easy to forget the overarching goal of the project, which usually involves solving some specific problem for users. Especially in a larger organization, you may feel more distant from the product decisions being made and the research being done around user pain points and needs.
When you think about how certain elements of a feature are designed, you’re forcing yourself to think about how the user will interact with the product, any roadblocks they may face, and how they can achieve their goal. By understanding this “why” behind features, you are much better equipped to advocate for these users through your engineering work. For example, it may help you prioritize certain features, and have a better benchmark for quality when faced with an impending deadline (what constitutes an MVP? That is now shaped by your insights from UX design).
2. You are a better partner to designers
Through understanding more about the design process, you get a sense of the challenges a designer faces in their day-to-day. This makes you a better collaborator, by helping you more easily communicate issues upfront and proactively offer ways your engineering skills can help. You develop empathy for designers by trusting the design process, which makes you realize that every detail is grounded in a deep understanding of the user needs.
In the beginning of my current project, I made it a point to ask those I was collaborating with how I could be a better partner to the design team as an engineer. I tried to build trust by opening channels for designers to loop me in during early stages of their process. This new process felt more collaborative, as designers would come to me with their ideas — and I could go to them, during each iteration. I felt that my knowledge around technical constraints was valuable earlier, which allowed us to move faster.
3. You understand the product development process holistically
For some, seeing the “big picture” can give their work more passion and purpose. This was definitely true for me, as I’m someone who is excited by knowing what I create has the potential to impact millions of users around the world. Getting involved with design gives you context on how the features you’re building came to be — in seeing their origins, there can be a newfound excitement for your work.
Picking up design as an adjacent skill allowed me to connect the dots and understand the product development process. As an engineer, I had a certain view of design and product at my company. As I became involved in design, I interacted with research and content marketing, and gained new perspectives of what the product-side entailed. I also had opportunities to share my ideas and work with different types of people, through design/product reviews and feedback from exec. Putting what I learned from these two lenses together gave me a more holistic sense of how to build a feature from ground zero.
Overall, these three reasons helped me enjoy my work more, understand my collaborators better, and in turn increase my impact. Design is one of many great examples of skills adjacent to engineering, and unlocked new learning and growth opportunities for me.
I hope you discover what your adjacent skill as an engineer could be — whether this article has convinced you to learn design, or something completely different. Thinking more about who you interface with in your day-to-day and the kind of work you enjoy can help you find what could be (or already is) your secondary superpower.