Based in New York and San Francisco, Carolyn Zhang is a renown product and web designer at UENO.
Computer scientist by education, Carolyn Zhang chose a creative path of a product designer. After freelancing for years, she has settled down at UENO, a design agency with offices in San Francisco, Iceland, New York and LA. I got to sit down with Carolyn in a small meeting room in UENO’s NYC office. She welcomed me with open arms, kind and confident, just as her work suggests. We talk about good leaders, growth and maturity.
I started working here almost three years ago in the San Francisco office.
It was actually because I was following the founder of UENO on Twitter. He Tweeted out that he was hiring people and I was looking for a job at the time, freelancing, and interviewing at places. I clicked through to his website and I realized that this is the guy I copy my work from all the time. I might as well copy it in person, so I reached out to him. I told him about myself, shared my work, and my past experiences. So I started doing some freelance work with him. Then after a couple weeks he made an offer for me to transition to full time.
I was the first American and the fourth overall employee at the agency. It was obviously very different from what the company is like now. It’s just been a crazy amount of growth in these past three years. I feel like I’ve been at four different companies. I moved over to New York about a year ago and still go back and forth between the offices. It keeps me on my toes and I get to see even more variety than you usually would at an agency.
So three years, that’s quite a long time to be working in one place.
Yeah, I never thought I would be at a company for longer than a year. Now it’s almost year three and I don’t see an end in sight because I don’t want to leave.
I never thought I would find a company where I could just be myself and do what I wanted to do and not have anyone boxing me in too much. It does make me a little scared that what if I have made this into the perfect job for me and I literally can’t function anywhere else. That might already be the case now.
—I never thought I would find a company where I could just be myself and do what I wanted.—
Can you tell me a little bit about your hiring process and what you look for in people?
We always start off by looking at the portfolio, at the strength of the work and after that we bring them in for a portfolio review. We talk about their past projects, ask questions and try to learn more about how this person works. After that, we bring them in to meet everyone. Sometimes, if that person is available on a freelance basis, we try to work with them for two weeks just as I started out way in the beginning by doing a trial period.
First of all they have to be a nice person, no assholes. And it’s very important that people are passionate about what they do, are really dedicated to their craft and always try to go above and beyond. They should be willing to help out with things that may be beyond the job description because we are still a small company. Each office is about 20 people at most. The entire company is 50 people. There really is just unexpected things happening all the time and everyone just has to pitch in and help out.
We have this phrase ‘bring the chocolate’; it comes from the saying that if someone asks you for a cup of coffee, bring them that cup of coffee but then also bring them a piece of chocolate. We try to always bring that chocolate.
—We have this phrase ‘bring the chocolate’; it comes from the saying that if someone asks you for a cup of coffee, bring them that cup of coffee but then also bring them a piece of chocolate.—
You talked about almost working like in four different companies during the time you’ve been in. How do you maintain the culture while growing fast?
The culture is so important to us because at the end of the day projects come and go, clients come and go, but the people and the culture is what we come back to every day.
It’s tricky. We’ve definitely had periods of intense growth where it’s, “Oh man, the team just doubled in size and things are still feeling a little weird and different and everyone’s still getting to know each other again.” Keeping the culture while trying to grow things really quickly is our biggest challenge for sure.
We are very careful about hiring and we try to just really get to know the person as well as we can during the interview process. This is why we try to work with people on a contract or freelance basis whenever possible because then you get a really great sense of who these people are.
We work very closely together on projects. Beyond that, we also try to make sure that everyone gets to know each other. When they’re a full-time employee here, we have regular team events, but we also sit together for lunch every day and just try to talk about things other than work, get away from screens. Then once you form these relationships with people then I think that culture kind of comes naturally.
We also don’t want to enforce some idea of a culture from the top down. We want it to kind of grow organically and flourish and change as need be. We do have these six culture values that you can find on our website. That’s what we think we are on our best days right now. Then they may change in the future, but it does also help to have a sort of guiding light to get everyone on the same page about who we want to be.
Can you talk a bit more about the challenges you have faced?
There’s a lot of demand and we can’t keep up with the incoming client and project requests. So far we’ve overcome that just by working harder and still trying to hire good people. We don’t ever want to be in a position where we’re just feeling so pressured to hire that we bring on people who aren’t right for the team or the company. But we also do want to keep trying new things. It’s always a balance of that.
I think especially at the beginning we didn’t know what was needed and where we wanted to take the company. It was just like, “Oh, this person seems nice. Let’s try working with them.” “Oh hey, we got really lucky and it turned out great.” I think over time as we’ve grown, everyone has developed a better sense of what the company is and what makes sense to add to shape the company’s growth and direction.
—At the beginning we didn’t know what was needed and where we wanted to take the company.—
Also, we’ve all learned how to have the difficult conversations about a company or a team member or just a particular thing that isn’t working. We’ve learned that just being direct and honest and upfront is the way to go instead of ignoring the problem or suppressing it.
You have defined your culture pretty well, I think. But have you also defined what is a good leader?
That’s also still being figured out.
UENO started as a collective of freelancers to some extent because Halli, the founder, was freelancing for a really long time. When he started UENO it was just him working with some other freelance developers together as a package unit. I was also freelancing when I joined and a couple of the other early employees were also freelancers.
—UENO started as a collective of freelancers.—
When you have a bunch of freelancers together, I think the predominant value is just freedom and taking initiative. Everyone was all kind of looking for a space where they wouldn’t be constrained by rules, by organisation structure, by anything like that. There wasn’t anyone trying to lead anyone else. It was more of a free for all, “Hey, just do what you think is best. We trust you.” That trust is still really important. I think any good leader would need to have the trust of the team or would need to trust their team to go out and do great things.
Beyond that, I think being a good leader is about figuring out how different types of people can work together. We have people from all different sorts of backgrounds, so having someone who can help bring together all these different perspectives and guide things in a certain direction is helpful. But it cannot be too restrictive. Letting people be themselves and explore themselves and explore their work and to keep pushing the work further... Just a light touch. Leadership means being helpful and willing to catch you if you fall.
Does the culture also vary in different locations?
Yes, the culture definitely does vary in different locations, probably just because we have a different group of people and the culture stems from the different personalities of the people on that team. Our biggest office is either San Francisco or Iceland. I haven’t been keeping track. That’s 20 – 25 people.
With each office there’s the personalities side and there’s the team size side. In a large office like San Francisco, we have multiple specialised design teams and a creative director running each team. In New York, for example, we have ten people and six designers. We just have one creative director running the team as one cohesive unit, no separate design teams.
I think in Iceland, it’s still pretty flat. There are obviously people who are more senior but not exactly leads. Usually, it comes through more on projects and depending on the project you’re on, there’s a more natural leadership structure.
But how do those different offices in different places influence that leadership?
I think the American offices have I think a different approach to leadership than the Iceland office for example. That definitely is in large part because of the cultural difference between these two countries. But, at the same time we also have a lot of immigrants in all of these offices, so it keeps things exciting. I think the American perspective on leadership is slightly different.
Based on what I’ve observed from a particular American employees or European employees, it seems like in Europe there’s a much stronger culture of just do as you’re told and the lead will direct everyone and say, “Okay, do this, do that, do that,” and the designers execute. But then here, it’s much more of an independent, go forth and explore and do your own thing with a lighter touch leadership.
How do you lead creatives efficiently and in a way that they excel?
It depends on the person. I really hate it when people call only designers creatives because that implies that other professions necessarily aren’t. A lawyer can be super creative in how they interpret the law or how they argue a case.
—I really hate it when people call only designers creatives because that implies that other professions necessarily aren’t.—
But there’s a balance, right, between guiding someone and letting them do their own thing. I see a lot of bad leaders lean too hard towards the direction of being so strict when guiding someone.
I think being a good leader just means creating a safe environment for people where they feel like they can make mistakes. That’s the way to help creatives flourish because everyone’s mind works a little bit differently. You can’t impose one single process upon all these different people. And really to get the best results and to work with such a diverse team, you have to just focus on creating a good environment rather than enforcing a single process upon anyone.
It’s also about bringing out the best in people without squashing their spirit.
Who have the good leaders in your working life been and what have they taught you?
I personally am a very independently minded person. I don’t have idols. I don’t listen to anyone. But Halli has been a very good leader for me personally because he is very hands off. He’ll be very forgiving if I make mistakes and he places a lot of trust in me. He’ll make suggestions or disagree with me when he disagrees, but he won’t ever force me into being something or someone that I’m not.
Halli is also a great listener and we’re thankful for that. Of course he’ll let me know when he disagrees, which is a lot of the time but at least he’ll listen to my disagreements and take that into account and then eventually I’ll be surprised a couple of days later when he repeats something that I said.
—Halli is also a great listener and we’re thankful for that.—
I’ve also had lots of great teachers, whether that was intentional or not intentional. Like my mentor at my first design internship who taught me a lot of the ins and outs of being an actual designer. Now, when I mentor other people I’m just copying exactly what he did to me. A lot of that is just giving very actionable, specific feedback about how to improve the work or giving very specific suggestions on new directions, how to iterate on this existing design.
Beyond that I’ve been pretty good at just learning by observing and adapting to different leadership styles just by kind of sitting in the corner and lurking and just seeing what might be needed for a project.
You said that you’re very independently minded, but from what I hear, you’re also very collaborative or pitching in when needed.
I used to be much less collaborative probably because I didn’t have any friends growing up. I didn’t know how to work with other people. I used to not really talk to the people on my team, be too shy and scared of rejection.
I think at some point I realized that it was holding back the quality of my work because you can only come up with so many ideas on your own. You need to have feedback and to build off of other people’s ideas or to riff off an idea together and just talk and kind of jam out. I think that’s when I realized, “Oh hey, these other people who are really collaborative are getting better results than me. And also there’s so much I have to learn from everyone at this company that I need to just open up more and build those relationships.”
It had really been drilled into my head that building relationships with people on the client team is really important because you want to come together and work, but I had to kind of learn through failure that I also had to build relationships with other people on my team within the company to work together well and as one large unit.
I’m definitely not the type of person who will do what someone tells me to do just because they said it, but I very much want to form strong relationships with everyone on my team so that we can all do great work together.
Is there room for ego in a creative team.
I think to some degree ego gets a bad rep because everyone always thinks of the people who are so full of themselves that they don’t listen to anyone else, but I’ve also personally experienced the complete opposite of that, where you hate yourself so much that you have absolutely no self-confidence and you can’t find an idea of your own to believe in. You’re getting in your own way because you’re very self-destructive.
—I’ve also personally experienced the complete opposite of that, where you hate yourself so much that you have absolutely no self-confidence and you can’t find an idea of your own to believe in.—
I used to think that the insecurity would drive me to push myself more, but instead it just placed an unreasonable amount of stress and pressure on me and I didn’t have any room in my mind to actually come up with ideas. So I was stifling myself with my own utter lack of ego.
Some amount of ego is healthy in order to let your mind focus on other things, so some degree of self-confidence is really helpful, but you can’t ever not listen to other people or just stop listening basically. You always have to be confident enough to listen to other people.
—Some amount of ego is healthy in order to let your mind focus on other things.—