Design Leader Insights - Avantika Gomes on Project Management for Figma

January 16, 2023


Alex Smith: Hi Avantika thanks so much for joining the show today.

Avantika Gomes: Thank you so much, Alex. I'm excited to be here.

Alex Smith: Avantika you work at Figma, that's awesome. A tool we use and love every day. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey into Figma? And working on the product team there?

Avantika Gomes: Yeah, absolutely. So currently, I lead the product teams that Figma working on our collaboration tools and native apps. For those who aren't familiar, Figma is a design tool that's aimed to democratize design make it accessible to everyone. And I think like the collaboration teams had a really cool part of the company, it's our job to understand how we can bring in PMs, Engineers, other stakeholders into the design process. So that's two features that help them communicate things like comments, or chat or audio, but also features that help keep the full team up to date on design work that's happening. So notifications, like a file browser product integrations. But early on in my career, after college, I got swayed by the allure of consulting, I started my career as a management consultant at McKinsey. I did that for a couple of years, but sort of knew that I wanted to do something in the tech industry after consulting. So I moved into a data science role at Google. And then ultimately broke into product management at a startup called Birchbox, which is a beauty subscription business. I really wanted to learn product management with some of the greats. And I knew the best product network was in San Francisco. So I moved, I moved to SF to work at Pinterest in the product teams there. And then after that, ultimately landed this role in Figma, which is very exciting. 

Alex Smith: Yeah let's dive into that because I know last time we had someone from Figma on they were saying, correct me if I'm wrong here, I think the majority of users in Figma now aren't even designers, so let's talk about that getting other users into that process early and often. I think, depending on where your team is on the design maturity framework, maybe designs even still siloed. But why is it important and part of your product process to get everyone on the same page? Or at least in the same FigJam file?

Avantika Gomes: Yeah, I mean, one I think, I think it leads to just better product solutions. I do feel like sometimes if you are in a very waterfall process, the PM writes the specs, behind it the designer designs the thing, hands it to engineering. You lose some interesting perspectives along the way. Like I've had engineers and brainstorms early on give like some really, really great ideas because they just bring such a different perspective to it. I've had designers who have really helped me shape a PRD, or product requirements document in the right ways that we're focusing on the right problems. And so I do genuinely think that bringing in those diverse perspectives earlier on leads to like this, this interesting debate, which often uncovers the best ideas. The second thing I do think it contributes to trust. The downfall of the waterfall model is that, you know, it's just like a black box in each of these phases. And you don't want to give people visibility into the work that's happening. They trust you more, they know what's going on, they feel like you value their input. And so it really like cements that working relationship between PMs and designers. And then the third thing I'll say is just a little bit practical, like I'm a PM, after all, the worst thing you want is like to fall in love with this beautiful design solution, and then realize you just can't build it. It's just not feasible, or it's going to take forever. So that's partly also why I think designers should be pulling engineers in and really working with them to narrow down the solution space. Yeah, getting that input early is just more efficient, in my opinion. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, absolutely. Let's talk about remote. I mean, Figma's a key part to remote designing these days. But also, like, as a PM, how are you running stand ups without making everyone exhausted?

Avantika Gomes: Yeah, I mean, I feel like collaboration just is changing. And I think the best companies are really adapting to the new way of work and not pushing things to be like the way they used to be. And I think the first thing is just acknowledging like, what are some things that are particularly hard with your remote? And how can we address those? One thing we are pushing both within Figma and even in our product strategy is thinking about where we can embrace more asynchronous communication like giving people time to react and work on their own time. Giving them more flexibility and focus. 

Alex Smith: I love that.

Avantika Gomes: Yeah, because I just, we all know these six Zoom meetings, just stop you have your energy and meetings just generally like block focus time.

Alex Smith: What type of advice would you have for emerging PMs or designers? Or PMs that are looking to collaborate with designers?

Avantika Gomes: Especially if you're newer PM or newer designer earlier on in your career, just being intentional about how you're spending your time. I think one failure mode I've observed with newer folks in the industry is like, you know, us PMs like we have this tendency we want to just fill the gaps want to do whatever is needed to make the team successful. We'll take the notes, we'll write the Jira tickets, we'll you know unblock design, unblock engineering. It's not always going to be feasible particularly as you grow and you want to scale your impact. So you know, definitely do that stuff. You want to build trust when you earlier on but after a point you don't want to burn out. You want to make sure you can actually, like spend your time in the most impactful way. And so just be intentional, like I think PMs, our superpowers are like, you know, understanding user problems, writing those down, understanding product strategy, like spend more of your time on that.Maybe other people can take the notes, maybe other people can schedule the meetings, you know, that probably isn't what you're being paid for. So that's, that's the first thing. I think the second thing, for better for worse, this is something I didn't do a great job of when I was earlier in my career is just that visibility matters.I was an idealist when I started and I thought like, you know, keep my head down and just get the work done. And it'll be rewarded. And I'll, you know, be successful just doing what I'm doing. But, yeah, I think the truth is that, the more you can make people aware and do it, do it authentically and do it with humility, but the more you can make people aware of the work you're doing, and the impact of that work, the better. And this applies to designers too, you know, track the work you're doing understand the impact it's having to the business and the metrics, make sure you can write that down, put that in your performance reviews. Like you have to, you know, sell yourself a little bit in these roles as well. And then the third thing I'll say, I'm very passionate about this. I've taught some courses on conflict management myself, it's something I, you know, invest a lot of time learning. But you have to learn how to disagree effectively with your partners. Applies to engineering partners, it applies to your design partners, it applies to anybody you're really working with, regardless of your function. But yeah, don't be afraid of conflict. If it's done in the right way, it can actually really be an unlock to innovation and creativity.

Alex Smith: I have a question about company size. Going from a Google to a Figma, what are some of the things you thought about or I guess what were some of the assumptions and what turned out to be true about going from, you know, a massive tech company to a smaller but quickly growing one?

Avantika Gomes: I just love how tight our product team is. When I joined Figma, there was 10 PMs and we could all fit in a room and debate about our product strategy. And we were always just aligned. And like, what we're trying to get done the outcome, we want to drive, the vision that we had. So there was just a lot less stakeholder alignment and like, you know, you're stepping on my toes or you know, our strategies are just going in different directions. Because we are just pretty well aligned and communicating quite regularly. I think at companies like Google and Pinterest, like, you know, the PM meetings, they come all hands pretty much because there's so many people.  And so there's a little bit more of that, you know, stakeholder management to be done.

Alex Smith: Avantika as we wrap up here any any recommendations or advice or places you would point people for more information? 

Avantika Gomes: Yeah well, I'll share some of my favorite books and product. I think the first one is really what gave me a lot more empathy into the design process. And like definitely made me a better PM. It's a classic like Design of Everyday Things. I have it on my desk at work. So yeah, it's a great one for even if you're not a designer, you just want to understand like, how to think like one and like design great products, whether it's physical or software. The second I'll say,Good Strategy Bad Strategy. Richard Rumelt. One of my favorite books, I actually reread this going into planning cycles.I just think like, a lot of things that people call strategy isn't strategy. It's just fluffy, or it's the Univision statements. This book does a really great job of distilling down, like how do you create concrete strategies and really think about different ways to write that out? Yeah, and the third thing I'll just plug, Figma just released a collaboration report. So we did some research on product teams specifically, and the behaviors of product teams that actually not just make the work better together, but lead to better outcomes. And so maybe I can send you that link, Alex, and you can put it into the show notes.

Alex Smith: Yeah. Yeah. Awesome. Thanks for those resources. They sound great. Avantika thanks so much for coming on the show today.

Avantika Gomes: Thank you so much, Alex. This was fun. Yeah, thank you for having me.