E028 Hiring Design with Madhuri Maram – Part 2

In Part 2 of this episode, Madhuri – Designer, and Host of the Hireworthy Podcast – gives us valuable insight about applying, positioning oneself and interviewing for a new career opportunity.

Listen here:

We discuss in depth, about how developing product thinking skills and understanding business can enable designers who wish to move into product management. 

Madhuri also tells us why management may not be for everyone, and how to choose between IC and manager roles. 

We debate about the relevance of the day-long interview format, and Madhuri lays out some of the parameters for ensuring an effective interview for both the parties.

She gives us insight into the best way to tackle those nerve-wracking contextual interview questions. 

We talk about the emotional toll of the job hunt process, and how to practice self-care while improving our skills.

We conclude with strategies on how to stay relevant and employable even in the midst of a recession. 



Sushi: hi, this is Design Lota, the podcast about life as Indian designers. I’m Sushi

Angie:  And  I’m Angie. We’re back with part two of our chat that Madhuri from the Hireworthy podcast

S:  In part one, we spoke about the big gap in the recruiting process for designers in tech. We addressed self awareness, non-obvious skills and navigating ambiguous titles and job descriptions.

If that would help you in your journey, do check it out.

A: In this episode, we talk about the importance of understanding business in product design. We go through the struggles of those exhaustingly long face to face interviews…

S: …and the emotional rollercoaster of the process from putting yourself out there to handling rejection.

A: So you mentioned about a lot of designers working in services firms and services industry, and now we are seeing that definitely designers need to build up on their product thinking skills. So how would you think someone who’s worked from a services background can build up that side of them –  thinking holistically on the product?

Madhuri : Very interesting – product thinking that I have learned mostly is through understanding business. If you understand how a business functions, can you understand what is a business model canvas? When you understand a business model canvas, the components of it, you will understand where is the money coming from?

Where is the money going? Where are they spending most of the time? . Who is the customer? What is your product segment? What’s the value proposition and all of these things. If you understand this, you’ll be able to change the design. No matter where you are. Design is informed by these product decisions and all of these business decisions.

We cannot fool ourselves and say that we are not related to the business. Who are you working for? You’re working for a business. Okay, so we need to have this thought process of understanding the business and when we understand the business, we will design better. If you don’t understand the business, we cannot design better.

We will be in a silo because the design team will be like, I will make things nice and look good and make it non-breakable,  functionable and all of that. But that’s only until that level. If you want to impact real change, we will start looking at the business completely differently. If you understand how the business works. If business is willing to invest money and time into design, why can designers invest money and time into business?

Okay, you can understand businesses. I guess take a mini course online. At least you can understand how does a business model canvas work. Can you open up your own product that you’re working on? Say you’re working on LMS or something that is related to, school related stuff. So can you tell me who are your customers?

No, not your persona. I want to know who are your customers end of the day. That is when you will truly understand how to pick up product skills, because then you will get into their feet and because that person has put in a certain amount of money, certain amount of thought process into all of this, and then you’ll be like, Oh this person has put in money because they want to save X amount of time in doing all these tasks because my product solves all of these tasks and you should be happy if somebody is willing to invest that time and money into a product. So won’t you make this product better for them? As a designer, you have more power now because you will know who is this.

So understand business and that’s when no matter where you are from service to product to Googles or anywhere of the world? This is the biggest advantage you can have is to understand your business. That’s where I think product thinking comes in. There’s a lot more aspects, but in my understanding, this is the starting point.

A: My next question was about understanding if you’re built to be a manager or an individual contributor or IC. I think you’ve done an episode on this about design management. Pretty much everything we’re talking about today, Madhuri has an episode on separately. So this is kind of a preview. So whichever thing you want to know more about. Please go and listen to the Hireworthy podcast. 

M: Thank you so much. Yeah, I actually should be disqualified for this question because I am mostly an IC and I work with my colleagues who are also very independent and fierce in their autonomy. So it’s more like a collaboration for me, rather than, you know, I’m working under somebody.

There’s nothing like that for me. So I never had this but I’ve had a little bit of learning on these aspects, so I can probably tell you that you should test it out to know if this is for you. If you were do not test it out, you will not know it. Are you invested in somebody’s growth? That is something that you need to ask.

Yes. Because end of the day, you might bring in that person, you might nurture their talent, but if that person is also not interested in the same level that you are, then it’s a win loss situation. They might win because they get a paycheck and all of that. It’s a loss for you because you’re trying to nurture somebody and it’s not going to go forward.

So you need to know when to quit also. So I  have realized that it is not entirely for me, but maybe at this point my status quo is I cannot, I’m not a fan of management, so it’s not me. But at one point, I do want to try better. I do want to learn better, but this is not something that, it’s natural to me. Many people, some people are made out to be good managers.

I have had the fortune of having one. So I know that she’s made out to me. But not for me definitely.

A: The reason I ask is because it becomes kind of a fork in the road. Like you have to either pick this or this and that’s how it goes. But like you said, how you know is by doing. Now I’m going to go into a little more on the whole interview process.

One of the things I’ve seen is, uh, we prepare for portfolio reviews, how I’m going to walk through the portfolio, but we also see like behavioral and situational questions. Yeah. How can someone prepare for something like that? 

M: Very interesting question because this has been a very common struggle among all hiring positions, right?

Because we are like, okay, I’ve hired this person with a great portfolio and the only way that you could understand  this person is actually devicing a day long interview process where you are collaborating with this person, you know, from morning to the evening. Otherwise you wouldn’t know. Right?

Like for example, it’s a very simple thing. Even if this person is hungry, right? I’ve seen examples where like, I’m hungry, but no I have to finish this problem statement and I have to, there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are some people who are very hungry and their problem can wait. I can go have my food  and solve it later. There’s nothing wrong with either of them. Actually, nothing wrong, even in an interview scenario, nothing wrong, but what ends up happening is, in a microscopic level, they will look at you and say that all for you. The problem is not very important. Seriously, you are human being. You’re hungry. You will get hangry.

Then what will you’d shouted with people around. I mean, it’s stress testing you wantedly to see if you will get angry at the other person. It makes no sense but these are the useless tests that don’t work also. Right. What I have seen, I’ve heard from some good people that when they pull in a person for a full day interview, by the first few 10 minutes, they know that they’re going to have this person or not, and the full day is basically to support that decision or go against that decision.

So that means. That means that somehow, the gut feel has set in that you would be a great add for them already. Like they know who they’re going to hire. It’s not judgment. It’s only you’re trying to figure what’s the best deal for me because you have so many applications, you are able to do that. If you don’t have so many applications, you won’t be able to do that.

So you need to do like a interview process. One is, of course, the one level is where the portfolio works. After that, what works is can you collaborate. Can you talk better? Can you communicate? I don’t know if you saw that viral video on communication. I don’t know if you saw that. One person. He actually shows a hand movement. He basically says, this is five claps and we’ll give you five claps now turn behind. And to the person next in line, give him the same information. So by the time it comes back to the first person, this person would be doing 10 clubs for no reason and a different handshake, that means that is how communication happens. It’s nothing wrong of the 10th person. Nothing wrong with the first person, but that is our time. So the communication leak, the understanding of how this whole thing happens. Can you communicate and be assertive and give, give a reasoning of why is this not working? Can you tell me that? When you get defensive, they’ll be able to see all of these traits in a live interview session.

Unfortunately, you cannot prepare for them because what your true self will come out. If you’re hangry, you, your true self is coming out. You cannot stop that. And they will see the self with you if they hire you. And if everything goes well, everything went well. But within the first three months you were in more scrutiny because you went through this.

A: I mean, I’ve, I’ve been in an interview where I said, I’m hungry. I want to take this up post lunch. Because also the way this whole, especially the on premise face to face interview thing, right? Where you meet four or five people on the same day. It’s not likely that on a work day you might be so on all the time in your head.

Like now, think of an idea. Now, think on your feet now, you know, white boarding challenge, now this. So it’s definitely a lot. And I know there’s a reason why it’s designed that way, that process, because they have you for one day, maybe they’ve flown you over from another city or something. Um, so that’s the time they have, and that’s the time everyone has so, maybe a designer can also think that I know that this is what is asked of me, so let me sleep well, let me eat my breakfast. Have a good breakfast and then be ready. 

M: Day long interviews are definitely hard on everybody. They’re going to be hard. You are sitting there being scrutinized and you are like, I should not make any slip up, this might cost me an opportunity. This is a big deal. I don’t know what will happen, XYZ, but. You know what, end of the day, whatever you are is going to come out, right. If you are tensed and you still manage to keepa  calm exterior outside and I’m not expecting everybody to keep it. Some people go bonkers and they’re like, I’ll do this. this is all I can do. Take it or leave it. Some red flags that you don’t know that are flags will appear for your employers. Whereas some green flags you think are red flags are actually great for some employers. You do not know, and that’s where culture is a very important aspect, right? For example, in Amazon, they have seven principles, very detailedly opened up seven to eight, I think eight, and they say that they have seven rounds. For the reason that every manager who’s coming for that round is catching one principle and coming and saying, are you performing against this principle? So if you pass all of this, then only they will then consider you for the final HR rounds and you know, all of this. So that’s why you need that strong, unbiased person. And then there’ll be one person who all these probably seven people report to and say that, yes, this person works out. He has had a yes, yes, yes from everybody. And then only finally this one. So this is a strong culture that is based on principles that say that these principles should not be breaking. Otherwise we are not going to hire this person. And that is where most of the companies fall flat because they do not have the structure set up for them that is coming and telling them this person is not biased for action. I’m not going to hire this person. This person doesn’t have the data backing aspect. They’re not going to hire, but this person has it.

Let’s hire them. Even if he has only 80% bias to action, can we still consider him. So those are the aspects that only a strong culture can allow you to form and move forward. And then you can also work backwards, right? If you know what Amazon expects, can’t you work backwards and be like, okay, this is what they expect. I am failing here. Can I improve this? And it’s actually a very positive experience for you too, because no matter what job you go to, it’s going to be the same. Good culture will give you good results for you as a person, no matter what job you get, you’ll still do really well. 

A: I’m also talking about the questions where you’re put into a scenario where you’re told, tell me about a time when there was a conflict and what did you do about it? So how do you think we should approach these?

M:  I think end of the day, every person brings in whatever they can bring in best and what works best every time is – never highlight who is wrong, who is right in the scenario. Always bringing context to every scenario, if that’s what it’s called, contextual interview for a reason, bring in the context on why what went wrong.

Is your analysis of the context exactly what you think it is or are you trying to blame something on somebody? That’s what they’re looking for. Say, for example, many common scenarios would be like this project X rolled out in your life and maybe you didn’t feel good about it. That’s an obvious scenario, right?

And this project Y went out and you felt awesome about  it. Now as an interviewer when I ask you what was the worst situation that you’ve ever faced in your job? You can say that I didn’t feel good about this project. And then you are basically analyzing the situation and saying that this context was not right. The premise of this product was decided based on XYZ factors rather than this factor. What  you’re usually supposed to do. This is how when you present a rational contextual argument, we are happy to take that answer. Anybody who is in position, cause they will understand that you are able to break down and answer very well.

if you’re not able to do that, then people will assume that, okay. You have either the tendency to blame somebody without understanding what is it that you have actually done, right.? That is why it is called a contextual situational questions. So when you’re read about situational analysis, this is a big thing in business case studies where they talk about how to analyze the context and present it.

Yeah. So if you can learn about that before your interview, not like how MBAs do it, where they write one 20 page document. No, you don’t need to do that. You just need to understand the principles of it before you do it. I myself am learning this so that I can improve my day by day communication with other people.

A: Speaking about interviews, knowing when to say, I did this, I thought of this versus then we thought we’ll do this. When do you harp on the collaborative part of it and when do you focus and say, but I was the one who came up with this. 

M: Okay. I don’t know if this is a very common thing in other organizations. You have to tell me where, uh, there is a time for collaboration. There is a time for you going deep so you converge and you diverge, right? So that is a situation, you know that when you have converged, you have gotten these XYZ aspects from the converge. And when you’re diverge, you did ABC things and you brought it back and added it to the XYZ. 

So, XYZ, ABC and all of these six aspects is what you’re going to converge further on and they’re going to become much more clearer. And you know, the design is going to develop from that. So I assume that when you do these aspects, like at putting it in a portfolio or any of these things, you need to share the thought process very clearly that this was a team effort of 20 people, 25 people. That also shows that you worked in a team of 20-25 people. That’s not wrong. That’s very good because then when I’m concentrating you for my job, I will not have questions on, have you worked on my size of companies and teams? Right. Then it will be easier for you also.

So that’s what I think should be okay. If you were a team of one, please say that you are a team of one, nothing wrong. In fact, you might attract better opportunities if you’re a team of one, because they are really, Oh, you did from this to this so, you should come and work for me. That’s the kind of thing. Nobody is a team of one in big companies. Everybody has a big team around them. They’re working with something and you always having that part that you have dealt with, right? I have done this X research, this led to Y output.  The researchers gave me this X output, I did the Z output. It’s okay.

Tell people that you did this. Okay, you don’t know how to do research, but whatever research you did, did you convey that at least. So that’s something that I think designers, or product managers should be able to convey to everybody. 

A: That’s helpful. I want to move into the next aspect. You tweeted, I think recently about the emotional aspects of a job search. I feel we need to hear more about that part of it. It can be a roller coaster, right? Like what you face at different stages of the job-seeking process. So some of the things I can think of are like. That whole imposter syndrome thing, the level of confidence you have, comparison and handling rejection. So any experience or any stories you have, 

M: Thinking about that, right. Like a very interesting aspect about job search – I’ve heard from one of our designers was where they had to kind of prove to every single person that this is me, this is me, this is me, this is me. Right? It is like. You applied to 20 applications at 20 times, you have to tell people that this is me. Imagine how that would take the toll on you that you have to keep proving that I am good at what I’m doing. I am selling the right things. The toughness with which you say it also matters because there is always somebody who’s going to one up you and say that I am better than you because in the market there will be a lot of people who will be playing for the same level as you, which you apply for in that organization.

So we should not feel dejected that we might not get. Of course, I myself will feel the pain sometimes where like, okay, I’m not doing enough in terms of what I’m doing with whatever content or whatever design that I’m doing. I keep feeling that I’ve not done enough, not done enough. I can do this better. Reserve that for another time. Right. Like for example, I remember we were discussing where we, after finishing the interview, you had got  great feedback from that manager and you wanted to improve that instantly into your next interview because you had that thought process that I reflect upon the feedback and then you put it down and then you went to the next interview with this thought process.

So have that documentation so that you don’t feel that, okay, I have just consumed that negative impression and it’s going to take over my whole life. No. In Xperian school, we’re doing some neuroscience class for the students, so I’ve been part of the sessions where I’m training some of the modules where I’m also going through as a student.

 In neuroscience, we learned that your negative experiences are 9X more deeper, they go into you 9X deeper than a positive experience. That means your rejection, your trying to prove somebody.. There could be that hope is actually diminishing every single time you get a no, and that goes in 9X that means for you to hear something positive, you need to go 10 X.

This could be applied. Literally anywhere in your life. Like if you want to tell your mom that what you cooked is great, you have to tell her 10 times otherwise she will not believe you. You’ve seen this happen, right? So. And if it is bad, you tell them once, nine years you might hear a word. That’s the reason why you be very clear that, okay, if something is coming at you and you feel it’s negative, at least understand, get comfort in the fact that you do take your negative feedback nine times more than positive feedback.

And it’s okay. Sometimes you do get negative feedback because you are not a fit for them. Probably or not for them, but if this happens over a recurring pattern of five to six jobs, you need to relook and say what is it that I’m doing differently, that I’m not able to secure this opportunity. Can you change it?

I, myself had a behaviour of quickly acting upon whatever comes into my mind. I don’t stop, pause and reflect. So now if it’s a lot of restraint from my side to hold it and then pause, reflect and then send it out. It is a long process in my opinion. But for somebody, this process is so natural. So that mental toughness that we have in terms of how we deal with these aspects comes from understanding where you are, why you are and what’s happening.

Context, context, context. That’s all we need to look at and always remember the fact that it takes nine times versus one time, and then instantly you will be like, okay, I’m overreacting. Chill. Nowadays, I tend to go that side. I feel better after understanding that. Okay. At least I tell myself  I’m better.

So that is what. I think you need to understand as a mental toughness for anything, not just job search, for every aspect of your life. 

A: Yeah. So what’s your go to advice to job seekers, designers at different levels, especially at a time like this. Uh, when we’re going through a recession and the time of day offs happening as well.

M: Yeah. I mean, yeah, it’s sad. Definitely. We’re going through layoffs, but it’s very important we view of a situation from a little higher level. It just can be hard. But trust me, if you view it from a little higher level. Unfortunately, all of us are cogs in the economic machine, right? We are those cogs that are running this buying, selling, demand-supply gap, and when the demand is low, obviously the supply, even though it’s high, your uniqueness that you provide as a designer or a product manager is going to go down because there are many people like you, and that’s when the demand can pick and choose the cherries and they can leave the rest.

It is sad. You cannot be a me-too anymore. I am also a UI designer cannot work anymore, so that’s when the only way that you can ride this out is being visible. Being visible is one of the most important things that I would tell everybody to do, which is. You know, Hey, if you are working as a designer, show your work out.

We have some great examples from India itself, Johnny Vino, Hardik Pandya, all of them. They’re consistently showing their work out there where you make everybody who feels like hiring, they will be the first person to think of. You are available. So let me go ask you. Don’t do this when you don’t have a job and stop it as soon as you get a job. Don’t.

Constantly do it. Proof of work is very important. If I don’t show you proof of work, how would you know that I exist? There are hundreds of designers out there, hundreds of developers out there, hundreds of product managers out there. What is making you stand out? Have you worked in the companies that is making you stand out? Or maybe you haven’t.

Okay. I don’t know you. You are amazing talent at this unknown company. Okay, fine. Can you at least do some blogs? Can you ensure that you have talked to some people? Do you have some YouTube videos of you out there where people feel that you’re valuable to talk to. Do you have probably a podcast? Come do another podcast. It’s okay. Because your perspective is how you can drive it. So proof of work is very important. You need to know what is that you’re offering and somebody will figure out what to take from you. Can you offer it more openly? If you sit in a corner and I have to discover you, that’s not going to happen.

Unless and until you work for an awesome company like a GMAFIA or something, it’s not going to happen.

A:  I was also going to ask you about personal branding, but glad you mentioned this in this way because this is what personal branding looks like for designers, right? Like what is proof of work. Who are you? Show me with your work. 

I want you to give a note about what Hireworthy is trying to do and what you’re doing. What are they excited about.

M: Hireworthy is trying to ensure that every person who’s a designer, product manager is enabled with the right information so that they can go do their best work.

We are thinking of coming up with a lot of things that would help more designers and product managers coming forward, and that’s the reason being – there are not many people who are taking this approach, you need to know what are the gaps. If I approach it like a design problem, I know that these are the gaps that are happening right now.

We want to help designers and product managers to figure out their point As, figure out how to get better and just have fun doing your work. You should not be sitting there feeling bad thinking  why did I get into product management? Please don’t do that work. Do something else. That’s what I think. That’s the whole aspect of Hireworthy.

A: Great. Thank you so much, Madhuri. This has been incredibly useful, and I’m sure it’s going to help out a lot of designers and even recruiters.

S: I was surprised by how much structure there is within the chaos that is design recruitment.

A: Knowing your point A and also learning about the values and culture of a potential employer can help clear up the fog when you’re walking this path.

S: What might be a dream company for one designer may not even align with what another designer wants.

A: Your unique career path is defined by your skills and how you’ve used them. So I think making that your purpose can be fulfilling because it’s about how you keep growing. 

S: And the future of work is also evolving, right? Especially in the past couple of months, with the COVID-19 situation, more companies are opening up their minds to remote work.

And it’s interesting to see the new possibilities that are opening up with collaboration, inclusion, and impact. 

A: Yeah, that’s true. And there are a lot more facets to the design career. We’ve put together some helpful resources that you can find on our blog 

S: Hey listeners, do you have a burning question about your design career? Tweet to us at DesignLota and we’ll try to hook you up with resources.

Also do head over to the Hireworthy podcast by Madhuri where you will find some really  conversations that help you out.  

S: You can find the references and transcript for this episode on our blog 

A: Stay tuned for more conversations about life as Indian designers 

S: Until then. Bye.


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