Dmytro Kovalenko on his career journey and building an all-in-one in-house design team

Сrafting a team from scratch is no small feat, especially if it involves managing more than one department. Dmytro Kovalenko managed to create a full design & web development team within Fluix whilst working remotely during the pandemic, and later the invasion of Ukraine.

Let’s take a deeper dive into his unique approach to design, and team collaboration. 

We had an older interview on how you joined Readdle. What has changed over the course of those nine years and how have you started building a dedicated team at Fluix?

Oh, quite a lot of things happened during these years. Nevertheless, let me highlight a few main points.

Almost nine years ago, I transitioned from overseeing the design of all consumer products at Readdle to the B2B department, focusing exclusively on Fluix. My primary goal was to build, grow, and lead a dedicated design team specifically for Fluix. 

Simultaneously, I had to deliver the 2nd generation of the platform, encompassing not just the visual aspect but a broader sense of designing a new generation of the product. So, back then, I started to build the product design domain first.

Somewhere in 2018, I believe, there was a business necessity, and an opportunity for me, to own the Fluix website design and development processes. So, I started building a dedicated squad for that too. Interestingly, managing website development under the design department is quite rare. However, I firmly believe it is the right approach due to the seamless collaboration between web developers and marketing designers, with a shared objective of website conversion growth, experience, and maintenance.

In early 2023, I finally had a chance to incorporate UX Research as a dedicated squad in my team due to a clear need for more and more usability testing and UX analytics. It was a substantial step forward in delivering even better experiences to our customers.

By September 2023, my team had expanded to include 15 mature, experienced professionals and remarkable individuals. All of us were focused on and covered the following domains:

  1. Product Design
  2. UX Research
  3. Marketing Design
  4. Website Development
  5. DesignOps

Naturally, we maintained close communication and collaboration with all cross-functional teams in Fluix. As the manager and leader of the design department, I found it challenging to align everyone toward our company’s goals, while avoiding fragmentation. This challenge arose from considering and prioritizing numerous opinions and factors, especially given the myriad cases and unique cases we had to address for Fluix on multiple platforms. Therefore, I took the initiative to prepare and mentor two internal managers contributing significantly to managing our team and workload effectively.

I also occasionally provided consultations to other design leads from the consumer department, sharing my expertise, knowledge, use cases, and ideas, while learning from their experiences to enrich my work too.

One recent significant achievement for me was obtaining NN/g certification with a specialization in UX Management. The experience was enriching, involving seven consecutive courses, each followed by an exam on the same day, totaling eight hours of training and an additional five hours of work per day. That was a tough but great experience and a boost of knowledge.

In December 2023, I embarked on another substantial challenge — returning to the consumer department to apply my expertise and knowledge in building and growing design teams. This time for PDF Expert. The move resulted from internal changes and the splitting of my Fluix Design Team by other departments, aligning with future business goals. It promises to be an exciting yet challenging time, and I am committed to giving my best efforts!

How do you approach design as a collaborative process? How did collaboration work in your team?

As mentioned earlier, my previous team comprised 15 individuals across five different domains, distributed by six countries. This geographical and domain diversity calls for constant communication and synchronization. Here are a few examples:

  • Web developers and marketing designers engage with the marketing, sales, QA, and SEO teams in tight collaboration to implement new landing pages and website experiences. This cooperation extends to understanding each other's constraints within certain timeframes and budget limits.
  • Product designers coordinate among themselves and with the engineering teams, product managers, Customer Success, QA, and Support teams. Recently, they've also integrated insights from the UXR squad to ensure timely delivery of improvements based on their findings, prioritize tasks appropriately, and provide the best possible solutions.

Maintaining synchronization and awareness among all parties requires constant vigilance. As a manager and leader, staying informed about priorities across different domains is crucial. Regular calls were set up to facilitate this:

  • Weekly 15-30 minute brief syncs by each domain aimed to provide an understanding of the ongoing progress, ensure alignment with priorities and make immediate corrections if needed.
  • A weekly sync by the entire design team allowed everyone to share project/task status, discuss obstacles, and receive immediate feedback and updates on priorities, roadmap changes, and goals for the upcoming week.
  • Periodic "In-Review" calls enabled designers and web developers to present their work to the entire team, receiving comprehensive feedback. These calls became more efficient with the expansion of the UXR domain.

Beyond these, of course, there were numerous direct radial calls between designers and other stakeholders involved in specific projects. Additionally, I had regular bi-weekly 1x1s with each team member. Despite the apparent intensity—sometimes having up to eight calls a day—these 1x1s proved invaluable. These sessions were pivotal in establishing personal development plans for my team members. However, the effectiveness of these practices, especially 1x1s, relies heavily on trust, openness, and mutual respect within the team. I delve into more details of this topic in my article on medium

Speaking about your experience at Fluix. Are there any lessons learned over the years?

Four years ago, when I took responsibility for the website development process, it was a somewhat daunting step for me. As someone not versed in development and lacking expertise in the field, I had to adapt and undergo a steep learning curve. Understanding how to establish transparent and efficient processes to lead and manage website development and developers was an entirely new experience for me. And it turned out really well. We successfully implemented a comprehensive and modular website development, a dedicated UI system called Optima, and the CI/CD (continuous implementation and deployment) process. Not to mention the high quality of website maintenance. That was a significant step forward from what we had before.

As I mentioned earlier, another substantial leap for me was a dedicated UXR squad comprising a UX Researcher responsible for qualitative research and a UX Analyst responsible for quantitative analyses of data and technical integration of analytic tools.

Reflecting on these experiences, my key learnings are straightforward:

  1. Don't hesitate to lead and build something new, even if you lack initial know-how. If you believe it will bring value, take the initiative and deliver.
  2. Invest in UXR! It's essential if you genuinely care to provide the best experiences to your customers and care about ROI.

Arguably the most challenging yet motivational aspect for me was (and still is) investing considerable time and effort in self-development as a manager and leader. I've learned valuable lessons from numerous failures and challenging cases. While there's still much to discover, learn, change, and adapt, as a leader, I find joy in witnessing my teammates grow and flourish. This brings me genuine fulfillment in my job.

You’ve managed to build effective processes in times of COVID and remote work. How do you manage the team in the conditions of War?

The initial months of the war were unexpectedly challenging and uncertain. I am incredibly proud and hold immense respect for every team member in Ukraine who has demonstrated the ability, mental and physical resilience, and strength to continue their daily work under missile attacks, in bomb shelters, and amidst high psychological pressure. Despite the harsh conditions, my team members in Ukraine exhibit tremendous effort and resilience, delivering exceptional work.

As a manager, you can never be prepared for such devastating events. There is no way to predict or approximate risks, or schedule what to do next. The only response is to roll up your sleeves and do everything in your power to support your teammates. It's crucial to constantly consider and acknowledge the conditions they are operating under.

In a leadership role, especially in a remote setting, the best you can do is provide unwavering mental and financial support along with empathy for teammates. Being available 24/7 for them and proactively showing support are key. I made every effort to offer this support as much as I could. In such conditions, I believe, the trustful and respectful culture I had cultivated in the preceding years played an important role. Even more than it could be during peaceful times. We all knew we could rely on one another, and I hope my teammates knew and felt they could rely on me. My goal was to ensure that work remained a stable and supportive island for them, a place they could be certain would not abandon them.

What are you looking for in candidates?

In evaluating candidates for my team, several key qualities are non-negotiable:

  • keen and critical thinking
  • a strong willingness to learn and adapt
  • a commitment to honesty and openness.

The absence of any of these would make it challenging for a candidate to pass, as they are crucial to our work.

Beyond these fundamental traits, I also look for curiosity in design-related topics, given a broad perception of design. Not just as a “pretty wrap” for something. Also, the candidate's motivation to join our exact team, coupled with a balance of humility and healthy ambition, is equally important.

Additionally, a qualified education and relevant experience are essential. It's not solely about the number of years of experience but about tangible accomplishments—the number of circles of launched projects, major updates, and impactful contributions. I consider a candidate's ability to deliver results more than the duration of their professional journey. I've encountered instances where individuals with 15 years of claimed experience may have achieved way less than someone with fewer years but a track record of successfully launching multiple products from scratch. Which for me is way more valuable.

On that note, actually, I'm currently looking for a Senior Product Designer. If you're interested, please feel free to get in touch! 

The Readdle Team The Readdle Team

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