September 6, 2021
8
 min read
Fellowship Showcase

How On Deck Leveled Me Up as a Design Leader

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Gordon Ching
Product Design Lead
,
GiftNow at Synchrony
The post originally appeared on MikeWilner.com. It was republished with permission.

Authors

Avatar icon
Gordon Ching
Product Design Lead
,
GiftNow at Synchrony

Avatar icon
Gordon Ching
Product Design Lead
,
GiftNow at Synchrony

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Gordon Ching began his career in marketing, but at a new company he pivoted to product design as an individual contributor and then became design lead within a year. He joined the On Deck Design Fellowship to help him get up to speed on design leadership and establish connections with fellows tackling the same issues as he is in his new role. On Deck proved to be a game-changer. Here’s his story:

Investor's note

My transition from marketing to design

I’ve been deeply drawn to tech ever since my dad gave me my first iPhone 3G. If you told me then that I would eventually work in the marketing department at Apple, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet I did. 

But after six years in marketing, most recently at Apple, I pivoted to combine my love for building brands and experiences with the world of UX and product design. I made the switch from marketing to design because I recognized that the future will increasingly be led by companies who have a brand and design ethos in their DNA.

Today, I’m a product design lead at GiftNow, a patented digital gifting platform that was acquired by Synchrony, a Fortune 200 financial services company. I’m leading design and research to make gifting stress-free and more personal for consumers, retailers, and companies. 

Despite being in a large public company, GiftNow exists as a separate entity altogether that operates like a startup. When I joined, the product design team was me and one other designer. Everything I did mattered because of our small team size and large scope, there was no place to hide behind others. I had to deliver impact from day one. I started as an individual contributor. As I took on my first projects, I began to realize that design wasn’t too different from marketing after all. 

It occurred to me that both marketing and design are about brand identity and expression —  except that as a designer, I have the power to directly bring the ideas I envision to life. I was the creator, not just the storyteller. It’s a game-changer.

Within a year, I was promoted to design lead. Being a leader of a smaller unit, I realized I had the opportunity to help shape design as an organization within the company. I'm not new to leadership and management. But from a design point of view, I'm new, and I moved into design leadership quickly. I felt I needed to convey the self-confidence that I had the ingredients to be successful in the new position. 

I soaked up knowledge from mentors, articles, and colleagues. But I also hit a ceiling when I realized I lacked a larger, trusted network of peers to relate to and be comfortable enough to ask hard questions and find insights.


Why On Deck?

In my new design leadership role, these questions kept me up at night: How do other design leaders do it? How do they succeed in their jobs? Where do I go to ask questions that I don’t want to ask my colleagues?

Fortuitously, I stumbled across the On Deck Design (ODD) Fellowship on LinkedIn through a post from Mindaugas, the Program Director. Time and time again, through chats with other designers, I wished there was a place where designers could come together to learn and level each other up beyond our day jobs. On Deck is precisely that.

One of my anxieties before joining was around the time commitment, since I had a full-time job while simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in design management at SCAD. It wasn’t easy to juggle ODD on top of my other commitments, but I was impressed by the level of communication, engagement, and genuine care from the ODD team. I was able to partake in most live sessions. But if I missed any, I was able to watch recordings on my own time through the membership platform.

I had initial fears that ODD would hurt my focus at work, but what I found instead was an extra layer of stimulation to help me see problems in a new light and enrich my own discussions with my manager and teams. For example, it gave me the confidence to explicitly express that I was interested in a people management career path to my manager. 

ODD provided a setting where I could ask hard questions and be supported by like-minded peers. I’ve met new friends who are working on similar things and encountering similar problems. It is a great way to leverage each other's wisdom and expertise. It is an incredible community where I learn, ask questions, get support, and build deep connections to help my career.

The unexpected benefits of On Deck

When I joined, I saw the caliber of fellows who were already part of the program on the landing page. But what was unexpected was how incredible the speakers were; the sheer number of them plus their level of expertise. Many of the speakers I already followed, but now they were available in an intimate chat where I could access their insights directly.

Through the speaker talks, I was also able to identify other fellows to connect with one-on-one. Someone would ask a question during a session that would resonate with what I was thinking about, so I would proactively connect with them and get to know them on a deeper level.

I had a few such conversations with a fellow who was a senior product designer at an early-stage startup. I shared with her my journey becoming a design lead and my thoughts on the skills that separate leads from seniors. She soon realized she could become a lead herself. Within weeks, she was promoted. It felt great knowing I contributed in a small way and helped her recognize these values within herself.

Another fellow I spoke with managed to identify and articulate some of my key strengths (while I was giving him advice about his product). His insights were invaluable. This helped inform my value proposition for my design consulting side business. 

I was building relationships through questions. And there were so many people, even beyond my assigned peer group, who had the same questions as me. This was not something I expected before joining the Fellowship.

Learning from top design leaders

Going through the fellowship, I wanted to get in the minds of design leaders and executives, understand what they went through to get there, and then work backward to plan my career. Maybe I don’t need to spend ten years climbing the ladder. Are there ways to close the gap faster? Maybe there’s a shorter path. 

It was all about demystifying design leadership. How it works, how they got there, and then for individuals like myself, to work backward and think about what I need to do to make that journey happen.

In a session with James Vincent who worked at Apple before I was at the company, I learned how he thinks about the artistic side of building brands. It goes beyond just products and into storytelling and communications. Hearing his talk validated that I had already learned much of the core language from my extensive marketing background. It helped me bridge the gap between my former career in marketing to the product design world I’m in now with more clarity. 

In a session with Designer Fund, the guest speaker simplified the business of design down to two key metrics: you’re either trying to save money or make money. In traditional design schools, they don’t teach much about the business side of design. Instead, you largely learn about art and design theory. Yet most designers live and operate in the business world. This talk helped me realize that not understanding the business side of design is a detriment to our careers and to the impact we can make as designers.

It's powerful to combine the different mindsets and disciplines from the fellowship, but also my identity and interests, to morph into who I want to be as a design leader.

A modern continuing education experience

The On Deck Design Fellowship is a modernized continuing education experience for working professionals who want to level up their design leadership abilities, their networks, and gain insider insights that you won’t learn as easily on the job, or in school.

Most of us in ODD already have a Bachelor’s degree and some even have a Master’s degree. On Deck is an upgrade to the executive continuing education programs many universities have for practicing professionals.

Most educational programs today are curriculum-based. You show up for class and then you’re done. But On Deck has a much more relationship-centric approach. It’s an important differentiator and part of why I continue to stay engaged with the fellowship. 

On Deck is a safe space to connect with a strong, tight-knit group of peers within your discipline. You also gain access to the wider talent network of other On Deck fellows who have all gone through a similar program experience. This is invaluable and makes it easier to break the ice when you reach out to new people, even if they’re from outside your discipline. People join On Deck because they want to create relationships and grow themselves. As a result, you have infinite opportunities to connect with fellows from your program, as well as from regional hubs and across other programs.


On Deck is a trusted network of warm connections.

Connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter, where I write about product design and leadership.

To learn more about the On Deck Design Fellowship, a continuous community for experienced designers who want to accelerate their careers, click here.

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