#ManagementHeroes with Emily Rucker – UX Lead at Shopify

How a UX Design Lead balances co-leadership, one-one-ones with direct reports, and personal growth.

Shopify UX Lead Lessons

Most jobs nowadays are multi-dimensional. You can spend part of your day writing an article, then switch to working on a large group project, and then work on your own professional development. 

For Emily Rucker, a UX Lead at Shopify, her job can best be described as being three-dimensional:

  1. As a co-leader of the Marketing Technology team, Emily supports her team through project kickoffs, sprint planning meetings, and retros.
  2. As a manager, she supports her direct reports through regular one-on-one meetings and career conversations.
  3. And finally, as an individual, Emily is constantly working on improving her skills.

Within each dimension, Emily has various roles to play, responsibilities to take care of, and lessons to be learned. It’s a lot to juggle, but here is how Emily has successfully navigated some of those challenges. 

First Dimension:Leading in a Trifecta

There are a few unique things about Shopify’s Marketing Technology team. First, the team is co-lead by a trifecta – a UX lead, a product lead, and a design lead.

Why Group Leadership?

Group leadership provides structure, vision, and flexibility. Within a product organization, trifecta-style leadership can execute efficiently and effectively with the trifecta being responsible for the individual project outcome. It also ensures that each of the key areas is represented in decisions. For example, if someone with little engineering experience were to lead a product-focused team alone, the end result might include some oversights that could hurt the progress of the project. 

Part of Emily’s responsibilities as part of this UX / Product / Design trifecta is to lead the team’s sprints – which take place every three weeks.

What is a Sprint?

A sprint is a process where teams design, prototype, and test ideas with customers. Sprints are a great way to bring together various stakeholders and provide them with the opportunity to focus on one specific initiative, all while encouraging collaboration. It provides the team with a chance to take a high-level concept and break it down into smaller pieces, prioritizing what needs to be done. 

“It allows us to take a high-level concept and break it into digestible tasks that can be delivered on by the development team. It allows us to keep ourselves focused in smaller chunks of time, and prioritize things across smaller chunks of time,” says Emily.

Sprints usually involve quite a few steps and stages, which might mean a lot of meetings with different purposes and outcomes.

These 6 meetings help Emily and her co-leads keep the team on track

1 Project Kickoffs

This is an opportunity for the trifecta to share the “big picture” initiative. They discuss the features that they want to launch and a high-level vision for the project. It’s all about the “why” and “what” – why it matters, and what they want to accomplish. 

“If a project is starting it would usually have a kickoff meeting at the beginning of the sprint, which would be much more high level, goal-oriented,” says Emily. “The trifecta presents that to the whole team. And then we move that high-level idea into a sprint.”

When Emily leads these meetings, she creates a slide deck to keep things memorable and highlights how the main goals connect to the larger Shopify vision. 

2 Sprint Planning Meetings

The purpose of sprint planning meetings is to identify the priorities of the sprint and discuss what the team wants to accomplish. They’re a great way to keep everyone aligned and informed of the scope of the sprint. 

3 Team sprint commitment

This type of meeting takes place half-way through the sprint and gives each person the opportunity to state their commitments and what they have pledged to finish. It helps keep everyone accountable!

4 Project retrospective meetings

At the end of the sprint, the team takes the opportunity to reflect on what they did well and what they could be better.

Typically, Emily uses sticky notes to keep these as interactive as possible. This encourages even the most introverted team members to participate and write what they are thinking.

These sticky notes are grouped into themes. As this is a learning opportunity, they then try to identify action items related to those themes – a way to make their next sprint even better. 

Working Remotely?

When Emily’s team works remotely, they hold their project retrospectives in Fellow. The collaborative space and ability to create action items helps facilitate the discussion.

5 Reoccurring syncs

These are syncs between the trifecta and senior leadership. It’s a great way to check-in with stakeholder expectations and team health/progress. 

6 Ad-hoc meetings

Finally, these are meetings about identifying specific problems and creating solutions. It might involve whiteboarding, talking about any blockers, and making decisions as a team. 

Pro Tip

Schedule a time each morning to prepare for your meetings.

Every morning, Emily goes into Fellow and adds notes for every single meeting in her day so that when she bounces between meetings, rapidly changing context, she remembers all the things that she wants to address in the sync. 

“I have back to back to back meetings and I’m the type of person that doesn’t appreciate ineffective meetings. So I spend every morning going through Fellow and making notes for every single meeting in my day to make sure that I can just bounce from meeting to meeting and switching all of the context constantly,” says Emily.

Second Dimension: Supporting a UX Team through 1-on-1s and career conversations

Emily’s team has changed in size a few times since she started working at Shopify.   She has directly managed as few as three people or as many as thirteen! Now with a smaller group of four people, Emily is able to hold weekly one-on-one meetings with her direct reports.

However, not all weeks focus on the same topics. In three of the weeks, the meetings take the form of working sessions, while the focus of the fourth week is career, growth, and professional development

Emily views one-on-ones as an opportunity to give back to her team. She is often busy jumping between meetings and projects. But because she has a dedicated time on her calendar to focus on her direct reports, she ensures that she has the time for them. 

“Because I’m in so many meetings, I’m always worried that I can’t give my direct reports the time that they need. So, I always tell them: This is a time every week where we can talk about your work and you can let me know if you need feedback on something’.”

These one-on-ones are a safe space to discuss goals and challenges. And because these one-on-ones are weekly, the direct report doesn’t need to wait to present a challenge that they are struggling with.

Growth 🌱

For Emily, the most rewarding part of management is seeing employees grow in new ways. She is dedicated to helping people on her team learn and grow. This could be by helping them get through a difficult challenge or by teaching them something new. 

“I’m dedicated to helping the people on my team. And when I see people who I’ve managed in the past really get through difficult challenges either personally or professionally, and grow in new ways, that’s obviously the most rewarding part.”

Occasionally, Emily receives wonderful, unexpected feedback from her team members saying how helpful she has been to them. It’s something that not a lot of people do, but it can definitely make someone’s day a little brighter! ✨

Third dimension Personal Growth

For people interested in a design career, Emily recommends being less attached to your work and trying to be more subjective about it. It may be uncomfortable, but sharing and asking for feedback is important to do as early and as often as possible. 

“Constantly sharing, asking for feedback as early in the process as possible even when you are uncomfortable,” says Emily.

Emily also recommends expanding your skillset around the business. This way, you can understand the different aspects of the company and how it works. Once you understand how different parts of the business work, you can start to understand other people’s perspectives and the needs of the different departments. By understanding this, it becomes easier to articulate your work in a way that connects to the business side and how to confidently pitch your work to different stakeholders. For example, a marketing team might be more interested in how they can implement the design and how it could better outreach. 

“Start to grow your skills around the business and start to understand different aspects of companies and how they work,” says Emily. “Understand what a marketing team does, what the finance team is doing, what the sales team is doing and how all of those things feed into the business. It will help you connect the work that you are doing to the larger picture success of the business.”

Like a lot of employees, Emily experienced imposter syndrome when she first started at Shopify. It was something that made standing up and presenting in front of a group challenge. For people who are experiencing a similar feeling, Emily suggests taking baby steps. First, host a meeting, then maybe plan a more collaborative workshop, and gradually build up to those larger, more public spaces! 

. . .

Sometimes it’s hard to think about all the different dimensions of an individual. But for many of us, our day to day is a balancing act of responsibilities to our team as a whole, our peers, and ourselves. Emily is a great example of how you can genuinely care about your team members and your projects without forgetting to take care of yourself!

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