Skip to content

Find the strengths in people’s unique backgrounds

Jehad Affoneh
Jehad Affoneh
2 min read
Find the strengths in people’s unique backgrounds

Before leading design at VMware, I was an engineer. I guess I am still an engineer in addition to being a designer. I studied computer science at the University of Washington (Go Huskies!) and worked as a front-end engineer within VMware before co-founding Clarity and then leading design for the company.

My background as a design lead is unique, but it isn’t that unique as a design leader.

A few months ago, I attended the Design Leadership Camp in Santa Fe. A great experience to connect and learn from other excellent design leaders working across the industry. As we started day one, we shared our backgrounds and experiences, our journey to design, and our journey to leadership. It was amazing to see creative, passionate, and very well-experienced design leaders coming from unique and diverse set of backgrounds. From english and journalism majors to computer science and engineering graduates to others who didn’t even attend college.

As I came back, I had a discussion with a design leader friend of mine who was sharing his pain hiring designers and creating a solid pipeline of strong candidate. I talked a bit to him about the criteria he’s choosing for selecting candidates. He was requiring a set pre-determined years of experience per role and a degree in design. I kinda found the answer to why it’s been painful to hire.

Hiring designers is tough. The market for design is extremely “hot” at the moment, especially in the Bay Area. Some roles are unique and require either a certain years of experience or a specific degree. Those roles, in my experience, are relatively unique. They’re the exception, not the rule.

Having a different background is a strength not a weakness.

My background in engineering helps me drive conversations across cross-functional teams in a language they relate to. Being able to speak “multiple languages” is a strength I carry with me every single day. The ability to challenge, understand, and push for architectural changes with a certain level of familiarity helps me gain credibility and assists me in balancing the technology with the experience.

As we hire designers at VMware, we’re focusing on finding the strengths in diverse experiences. Someone’s previous work, portfolio, and attitude are a better indication of their abilities than their college degree. The exception is if you’re hiring them directly out of college with zero years of experience.

When we hire, we work with interviewers on the team to ensure we’re finding the reasons why a candidate should be on the team versus focusing on why they shouldn’t be. We do raise red flags, talk about gaps and shortcomings, and highlight concerns. That said, we still focus on why their unique backgrounds adds to the team vs. fits within it.

My unique background is the reason I am here today and will be the foundation of where I go next. Let people’s prior work speak for itself, focus on what they can do, and embrace their unique background. It’s how you build a team where people belong, not fit in.