“It’s a small world after all.”

The design and tech world might seem like a big place but it’s not. Silicon Valley is vast but people move around, you’ll definitely run into coworkers at future jobs. If you jump out to a smaller city that is only intensified. Throw social media sites into the mix and you better conduct yourself professionally from day one. There is nowhere to hide in this internet age, so act appropriately from the start to the end of your career.

Do you want to lead?

If my opening wasn’t enough to convince you, let’s jump into a few reasons why you need to be a pro. If you have any interest at all in being a manager or a lead in this industry you need to be extra vigilant from the start. As we know in life, first impressions are huge. If you hope to lead your coworkers, the first exposure they have to you is key in setting the tone. Are you someone that can be followed and trusted? If the answers to those questions are no, then you will have a rough time moving up to a lead or management position.

Do you want to be taken seriously?

Related to that is if you want to be taken seriously. In the product design world, ideas come from many places. You’ll often be competing with your fellow designers, product managers, and developers for what path to follow in the design 3 Be a pro process. You’ll never always get your way. Yet, if you want to be an influential team member that people listen to, you need to be a pro.

It really is a small world

As I mentioned off the top, it is a small world in design and software. This is even more so if you work for a large company as you will cross paths with even more people. In design and tech, most people stay at a company for 2–4 years. That means in the average 40-year career, you might have 10–20 employers! If you work in a town that has around 100 tech companies, there is a good chance you will work with the same people many times. Let’s say early in your career you were not very professional and burned some bridges. Now fast forward 10 years to the fourth or fifth company in your career. Here you find out you’re working with a few people from your original company. You’re already sunk from having influence at this company before you even started. Yes, people can change and maybe you are different but you still have that terrible first impression you’ll have to answer for. It’s much easier to just be a pro from the start. Let’s jump into some of the ways you can achieve this as you move into your career.

Treat everyone with respect

This is a simple tip but very key. Make sure you respect not only the managers above you but also your coworkers that are less senior to you. This includes the people like the office receptionist. Make sure you treat them like any other person on the team. They are not there to do your bidding and you’re no better than them, so act accordingly.

Learn to be accountable

One of the most frustrating things you can do at any stage of your career is not be accountable. Learn to not blame others when things go wrong, even if it’s not your fault. Being a pro, and a good leader is about finding solutions, not assigning blame. When you make a mistake, don’t look to assign blame to someone else for why they made you make the mistake. Find a solution as quickly as possible, put it in place, and move on. If a coworker makes a mistake, come to their aid and help them find a solution. This type of trust-building will not be forgotten and will help you to move up into a leadership role in the future.

Learn to give constructive criticism

Along with being accountable, you need to learn to give constructive criticism. The way to give constructive feedback is to point out the issue but also offer a solution at the same time. You are not there to embarrass your coworkers, you’re there to support them. Then when the shoe is on the other foot, you will have friends to help you as well. Never provide criticism without positive feedback. Also, ensure your delivery uses empathy. You spend 40 hours a week with your peers so if you treat them with respect, it will be a much smoother relationship.

Learn to take criticism

When you receive criticism you must focus on doing one thing, don’t make excuses. Take the person’s feedback and listen to it. Give yourself some time to digest it and then plan a response if needed. Not all criticism requires a response. If the coworker has also proposed a solution, you could simply accept it and move on. If the criticism is unfair, then consider pulling the peer aside and talking to them one on one. However, you should take some time before any reaction and avoid making excuses at all costs. People that can take criticism in stride are on the fast track to move to senior, management, and beyond.

Help others

Another way to be a pro is to help others on your team. Design is not a one-player game. You’re going to need product managers and developers to get 5 your product built. If you can find time to help these people, they will remember it and return the favor in the future. Of course, make sure you are meeting all your own commitments, but don’t be shy in helping others.

Build trust and influence will follow

By helping others, we build trust with them. The more people you help, the better listener you’ll become. You’ll also get better at giving constructive feedback. This will lead to you holding more influence on your team. Trust takes time to develop but if you want to be a successful designer you need to learn this skill. Often in the product design world, design is cut when deadlines get tight. If you don’t want to be left behind, you need to build trust with your piers so your contributions are valued.

Building trust with product managers

Product managers wear a ton of hats in their day-to-day work. The best thing you can do to build trust with them is to get out of their way. Yet, you don’t want to be ignored, you want to get your work into the product cycle. To achieve this, don’t be a blocker but look for ways you can support your product manager. Can you help them writing stories? Can you run some of their meetings? Can you start the conversation with them about a new feature? There are dozens of things you can do to help product managers, so start doing a few today.

Building trust with developers

First things first, learn to code. You need to know at least HTML and CSS, some JavaScript wouldn’t hurt either. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Would you take a developer seriously about design feedback if they had no design knowledge? Of course not. If you want developers to take you seriously, you need to learn a bit about their world. Once you’ve done that, look for areas that you can overlap with them to build trust and help out. Maybe you can code up a rough 6 button component to show them your idea instead of providing it in Sketch. They’ll likely recode it but it will show you are making an effort to meet them halfway.

Being a pro is not just being a good person and designer. Yes, that is a big part of it but you also need to master building trust if you want to gain influence in the organizations you work for. Be a pro from day one of your career and the sky is the limit.

Head of Design @ Stellar Labs

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