Cap Watkins: VP of Design at Buzzfeed

Cap Watkins is the VP of Design at Buzzfeed. Previously he worked for Etsy, Amazon, Formspring and was the first designer at Zoosk. In this interview we discuss how to build world-class product design teams and the value of writing.

Hey everybody. My name is Sam Solomon, and this is signal tower today. I’m joined by Cap Watkins, who is the vice president of design at Buzzfeed. He’s formerly a senior design manager at Etsy. He worked at Amazon and he was the first designer at Zoosk and Formspring. 

Give people an idea of your background and kind of do a little profile. I read, you know, when you were young, you wanted to be a doctor, but your junior year of high school, you actually got a failing grade on an English paper. Tell us about that and what impact it had on you.

I thought that was like the thing I was going to do—which my parents really happy. You know, you can’t go wrong telling your parents, you want to be a doctor. It gets them pretty pumped and I found that very encouraging.

You know, in high school they teach you to write the five paragraph essay? And so my junior year I had an English class and the guy that was teaching, it was actually a PhD. And and he told me that he’s not accepting my weak ass shit essays. He fave me an F.

That was a really frustrating moment for me. Look—I’m the first kid in my family, which I think makes me a little more of a perfectionist than my siblings. And so I spent the next year focusing. And you know what? I wound up not like getting an A in that class.

It sucked. I deserved it. But it probably was a good thing. He was a super-challenging teacher. He wanted me to go in and rethink the importance of communication—how we write. Honestly, it lit a fire for me. I became obsessed—kind of hooked—on trying to prove myself to this teacher. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t an idiot.

I hated it at the time, but it really opened my eyes to writing. I got better. And after a terrifying conversation with my parents I was able to go to college for creative writing. Luckily my parents were ok with it.

Telling you parents that you’d like to study creative writing in college is definitely more terrifying than telling them you want to be pre-med. That’s a big jump though—from tryin to prove yourself as a writer to study it in college. There must be something else at this point that compels you to write?

I don’t know. Even when I was a kid, like when I look back on it now, it doesn’t seem so strange. When I was a kid I would write. Maybe it would start with a journal entry here and there. I wound up also like writing in local—well—neighborhood newspapers. I would write plays and like get all the kids in the neighborhood to act out what I had written.

So maybe it’s not surprising. Maybe there’s just a part of me that enjoys creating words—I just didn’t associate that with school. Looking back it’s not surprising I got hooked. I’ve always kind of had a thing for the creative side of that stuff.

So you go to college, you, you get this creative writing degree and then what happens?

Nothing good. Nothing good.

I remember I was home. It was summertime and had gotten into a master’s program for creative writing. I finally received the financial aid package for the program. It was incredibly disappointing. I was trying to justify it to myself, but realized there was no way I could afford it. I couldn’t be in that kind of debt with a creative writing degree. I’d be paying a mortgage worth in loans for the rest of my life.

So I’m a little lost. I deferred that and wound up working at a coffee shop for about a year. Right. Not ideal, but it wasn’t going to ruin my life.

While I was doing that there was—Word Perfect. I always liked to have a computer around to write. Because of that I learned pretty early on how to write HTML. That may sound a little weird—I don’t know how old your audience is. CSS wasn’t really a thing back then. You’d put together layouts using tables. Semantically, it was probably terrible it was messy to do, but I look back pretty fondly on those times.

So I’m working at this coffee shop. Trying to figure my life out. I also had a copy of Photoshop—and with that and my knowledge of HTML I began building websites on the side. You know it was interesting—something I enjoyed doing. It was fun creative work. I never really thought or knew that could be a job.

Eventually, I wound up working with some friends on their company website. So I go out to LA and hung out for a week. We worked. Then I flew home. Then maybe a week or two later I get a call. They’re like “Hey we got funded. We need a designer. Want to come work with us?”

Two days later I had all my stuff packed  and was on a flight out to California.

It’s funny. I’ve met so many people that just kind of stumbled into design. One of my early interviews was with a guy named James LaCroix. James was designing logos, t-shirts and stuff for bands. He didn’t really know what he was doing was design. He didn’t know that’s something he could do for a living, but he got a spark, honed his skills and it evolved into a career. Now he owns his own design shop.

Well, the thing is you don’t know. It’s easy to like look back and point to things you did and show how they line up with where you are today. If I could take a time machine back, I’d go back to college for design. But that could have led me to a completely different place.

For me—I didn’t really know that that was something I could or should be doing until that moment.

And so you took them up on their offer. Following that you ended up at Zoosk and then Formspring? Or vice versa?

Yeah, The first designer at Zoosk. You know it’s funny looking back at that previous experience. I kind of feel bad for saying it—but I don’t know that I was qualified for that first job. My skillset was not what they necessarily needed. Or at least at the level they needed. But it was a contract gig. I worked with them for around three months. We liked each other and worked well together, so I decided to do it.

And what was cool about the company leadership was that most of them were ex Microsoft folks. They’ve been at Microsoft for years. And the company gets a bad rap. I get it. But they’d seen what design should look like and like what a design process should look like. And they were extremely helpful in like helping me figure those things out. Things I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

They taught me to take my work and put together storyboards—show user flows. We would print all the screens I had out—I know how that sounds in 2015—print them out and we’ll tape them up on the wall. We did it and I realized how the step by step interactions would work. It was a moment of clarity and I found it interesting.

We’d do user testing with this. I’d put an ad on Craigslist for a $20 gift card if they would come in and ask them what they would do to sign up. That wasn’t something I knew how to do beforehand, but I knew we needed other people to look at it. We kind of figured out how to make all this work.

I probably wouldn’t have done that two or three years before. I wouldn’t have known how to think that way. I came out of that role a much better designer. It allowed me to land a job at Formspring and then Amazon. Amazon was another crash course in learning new processes.

You talk about how much you learned, but feel like you shouldn’t have been there at the time. Why exactly? Was it more of a gap where you knew you should be doing stuff better and you couldn’t?

Sure. I was so junior—I had never built or designed a product before. Building a product is a completely different game than the on-off marketing website I had designed. I think people still look at a website like Amazon and think of it as a website. It is just an incredible piece of software that is managed by some of the smartest designers, engineers and managers around.

A marketing website is kind of like making a painting. Designing a product is like curating an entire museum. You need to think about how they are arranged, how traffic should flow from one room to the other. Knowledge about how to paint or sculpt or whatever is critical, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to curate a museum.

Honestly, I knew enough to know my visual design acuity at that point. It wasn’t great. Maybe that says something. I was at least aware of it. But the smarter thing for them would have probably been to hire someone more senior.

On the other hand that could have been something that they decided not to do based on like the funding. Guess I’ll never know. But yeah, now that I look back, I’m so surprised that I like ever had my first assignment because I was working in a coffee shop.

So things seem to have fallen into place. I’m fortunate that it’s all worked out.

Before we started recording we were chatting briefly about side projects. How do you feel about sharing some of the stuff you’re working on? I think our subscribers might be interested.

Well, I’m a good writer and I’m pretty proficient in front-end development. But I’ve never built software on my own—as in something that writes and reads from a database—a web application.

So I collect a lot of links and a lot of great articles. There’s so much good free content on the internet and I keep a giant bookmark list of all of these links. One day I tweeted about it. I got a reply back from someone saying that they’d love to see that list. It got me thinking—how difficult would it be to create a site that I could post links, take the meta data have it save, and surface on a page where I can share with others?

It took me three or four days and a couple chat sessions with a good friend of mine who is an excellent engineer. Also lots of Google searches and stack overflow comments. I finally got there and got it launched. It’s just a bunch of links, but it was a fun project and I’m proud of it.

In a similar vein I’m trying to build something we can use internally at Buzzfeed. So think like a database of employees where you can find people you work with and some additional details. The idea is that you meet someone in a meeting, and you can look them up. That’s what I was working on this weekend. It’s pretty rudimentary right now, I have some designs for how it should look and work.

I’m hoping with these designs I can inspire an engineer to pair with me. Maybe someone that has some free cycles or just wants to spend a few amusing hours paring with me on a lazy Sunday. I can build the frontend, but probably need help from an engineer to get this thing wired up.

The thing about side projects—and it’s kind of weird—but I get this sense that something is bothering me. Even if it’s just a little bit I obsess over it for two or three days. It’s inspiring and I feel so focused. It’s like a problem you have to solve or an itch that you have to scratch.

We just met, but I get the sense you feel that too.

Right. I know what you’re talking about with the itch. Sometimes I’ll lose all track of time working on something. I’ll forget to eat if I’m really focused.

I think the other thing is just like, I don’t get to do much design work anymore, obviously. I’m a VP of Design. I’m not spending my time at work in Sketch. I’m not shipping production code. I miss it. That was something I really enjoyed. These projects are kind of a way to work those muscles I don’t use as much any more.

I know you’re busy, but outside of working on these projects how else do you learn? Are there books or online courses? Do you go to workshops?

Working at Buzzfeed there’s always interesting tech stuff going on—I’ve been reading a lot in the last year. Interestingly, it’s been a bunch of chef biographies.

I don’t really know why other than that they are entertaining. We’ve got probably a couple dozen cookbooks we’ve accumulated the last couple of years. We’ve started cooking a lot and having people over for dinner parties.

Curious, what other hobbies or interests do you have?

I run. I like running a lot.

Unfortunately, I hurt myself not too long ago and wasn’t able to run for around three months. I’m finally healed enough to get back into it. It’s one of those things that once I’ve started doing it again I realized how important it was for me.

I feel like with a lot of my hobbies I’m in front of a screen so much—just like we are right now. I’m into weightlifting and doing other things that get me away from a screen. I’ve been at the gym around four days a week pretty regularly the last several months. I love hiking. Unfortunately, here in Mobile everything is flat. You can’t get above the tree line. Even going for a drive on a nice day gives me time to recharge.

Oh, that’s funny. I’ve never actually thought about it like that. I’ve always thought about it as just doing different things. Some of those things were more deliberate, other things I just kind of stumbled into. Things like running—or weightlifting for you—also have a side benefit of making you healthier.

I know you’re new at Buzzfeed. I’m curious what you found compelling about the company? You’re a pretty well known design leader, I feel like you could have gone almost anywhere.

Yeah, I think this is actually the first interview I’ve done since joining.

Well, it was kind of an accident. And you’re right, I interviewed at several different places. The thing about Buzzfeed is hard to describe—for one it felt like everybody I talked with was on the same wavelength. I thought that was really special.

Could you expand a bit on that?

Do you know what I mean? I kind of think it’s something like that—maybe the similar perspective. Common values, is how my wife refers to it. It is super important.

Transparency is incredibly valuable to me. I want to work in a place where they also value transparency—it’s fine if they don’t, not all businesses need to operate that way—but if the people I work with are not transparent, it’s not a place I want to be. It’s not the type of place that I would be successful.

So when talking with the team at Buzzfeed, I felt like they were incredibly transparent with me. Not only that, it was something that they wanted to instill in the company.

And you know, I’ve never worked in media before. So I was a little worried about that. But then we were out to dinner with a couple of friends and they worked at The New York Times and Washington Post. I was talking with them trying to figure out what to do. I did have a couple of places that I could have joined—it was really close. I just wasn’t entirely convinced media was for me. Anyways we were talking and they were like”Dude, that is the future. If we were going to leave our jobs tomorrow, we’d go do that. Don’t go do something else. You have a huge opportunity.”

The whole thing was really surprising to me. They were obviously passionate about the industry and really felt like this was the future. So I decided to go try it.

I’ve been pretty happy since. It really feels like every day is better than the last. I wake up every day looking forward to creating something awesome.

So obviously because of this publication, I have an interest in publishing. I’m curious what do you perceive to be some of the largest design challenges in publishing?

Well, I don’t think the basic challenges for Buzzfeed are terribly different than the challenges you face. You’re trying to best tailor content to the reader. It’s a difficult problem and I’m sure we’ll continue to see solutions evolve.

Specifically, Buzzfeed contains a lot of different content verticals. A hard news story has a different reader than a quiz reader or DIY reader. The readership varies not every thing caters to every person. Trying to host very different things under a single place causes some challenges.

Internally Buzzfeed has a custom CMS. It’s not just a WordPress install. It’s a pretty robust piece of software that I think about a lot. We need to make sure that the CMS is flexible and can expand to cater to new types of content. We need to do that without interrupting writer and editor workflows. It needs to make sense for the people using it.

One cool thing about working in a media company like Buzzfeed is that are users are all inside the building. They both use the backend and consume the content we write. We can walk up and go talk to them at any time. It creates a tight feedback loop.

Another thing I think about is perception. It may not be so much of a design challenge as a marketing or positioning one. When people hear Buzzfeed they think of a bunch of listicals people are posting on Facebook. You know—13 reasons somebody on the internet is wrong—and one thing they’re right about. That is the perception.

Then there is Buzzfeed News, which is a pretty serious news desk doing serious reporting. It’s a completely different voice. There are a ton of in-depth stories—like Buzzfeed broke the story about the Uber Executive trying to dig up dirt to discredit journalists that were critical of the company, specifically Sarah Lacey at PandoDaily.

There are a lot of really cool verticals that are spinning up pretty hard. We’ve really got a ton of DIY content. We have an awesome video team based out in LA that creates so much amazing content. Yeah, I see people cheering the videos probably more than anything else.

So positioning them and branding them so they are the same, but slightly different is a hard challenge. You want to make sure that the DNA is shared across the verticals.

So Buzzfeed has some branding—or positioning issues the design team needs to solve.

What about Vox, who I’m sure you’re familiar with. They are another hot publishing company. They’ve kind of siloed their niches into separate brands. You’ve got Polygon for video games, Curbed for local news, The Verge for tech and culture and Eater for the foodies.

What’s your opinion the approach Vox is taking?

It’s interesting. I’m keeping an eye on them. I actually know a few people at Vox. I think they’ve got a very capable team with a solid product and produce great content. They take pride in their efforts.

I get what they are doing, but they speak with a lot of voices. Each of those publications feels different. We don’t want to lose the Buzzfeed voice. We don’t want to lose what makes Buzzfeed, Buzzfeed. Do you know what I mean? Like some of it is like, it is brash and it’s like your face. And like it’s a little irreverent and that’s okay. That’s what we want it to be.

Obviously, it’s hard to say where this will go in the long-term. But I’m not sure that there’s necessarily a right approach.

That’s fair.

In your writing you’ve talked a lot about the role of product designers and were pretty particular about who you hire. You’ve talked about hiring end-to-end designers. What exactly does that mean and why is that important?

The meaning is pretty straightforward. An end-to-end designer can take a project from ideation to design to development.

In ideation, they are doing research and wire-framing. Then they can take that and put together designs. And then in development take those designs and translate it into code.

All designers at Etsy were required to contribute code. It was one of the strongest product design teams I’ve seen. We’re still trying to figure this out at Buzzfeed. We’re thinking about the next steps. I look at design as a way to tie all these disciplines together.

Why is that important? It is critical for a designer to go all the way through the process. Even if they aren’t actually the ones shipping production code—that knowledge about how things work tightens the relationship between them and those they work with. Designers knowing how to code and talk to users cuts down on wasted communication. It creates a tighter connection with other teammates and ensures that design is part of the process from start to finish.

Another benefit is that end-to-end designers are flexible. Design changes quickly—extremely quickly and we need to constantly be learning new things. Think of UI mediums—for a long time it was desktop software. Then you have the internet and everyone has a website. Then you have the iPhone launch and all of a sudden we need mobile design, tablets. You know what’s next, right? Watch interfaces and VR like Oculus. Then you have all these things becoming cross-platform.

Look, I’m sure there are certainly other approaches to building design teams—you can have specialists doing research, visuals, mobile, motion. There’s always cases where a specialist can shine. However, in my experience organizations where most designers are specialists—I think it is difficult to get that close knit connection. When there isn’t as much overlap in skillsets it kind of becomes a game of telephone.

Teams of specialists have never worked for me personally. So, I’m going to continue to seek out those end-to-end designers.

So you hire designers that not only design, but they can do research, they code, they can design and build across platforms. How do you go about doing that? Where do these designers come from?

It’s a lot of work. Part of it is you need systems in place to accept the type of designers with these skillsets. If your design and engineering teams are siloed, hiring the best product designers in the world may not get you far.

Recruiting is so important. I search every place I can find them. Having a decent online presence makes it a little easier for me. I spend a lot of time looking through my Twitter followers. Maybe I’ll discover that there is a cool design conference happening. I’ll look at the conference hashtag. Who is at this conference and tweeting? Do they tweet or have any links to work on their website?

I feel a little bad saying this, but one of my best recruiting avenues is dribbble. I try and scope it down a little recently. I’ve been going state by state. The default sorting is by most popular—that’s not what I want. Everyone at the top is doing some sort of marketing work. They are designing for the likes. I look for recent posts to see who is posting real work—that’s where you find all the best designers. It’s this crazy list of amazing people that nobody has heard of doing incredible work.

I find these folks and pluck them out from wherever they are.

Amazing. So that’s the secret. So—and just so everyone knows—my friend Henry Bayuzick used to work for Cap. Henry worked with me in Mobile doing some development stuff for around a year. I gave Henry an invite to dribbble and like two weeks later, guess what he told me? Cap Watkins emailed me.

I was like whatever. Quit screwing with me—but that really happened. You send him an email asking to talk.  I figured that must have been something to do with dribbble, but never actually knew. 

Now the cats out of the bag.

I’ve been pretty hesitant to talk about all the things I do to find great designers. It’s already hard and I don’t want competition. I spend a lot of time thinking where designers are and trying to find the best ones.

That’s ok. I’m not going to ask about any more of your design recruiting secrets.

What is critique like? You’ve got all these talented designers that probably have a lot of opinions given their skillsets. What are those like?

Well, I find it helpful if the designer presenting has a couple questions going into the review—prep a couple of questions for the people looking at the stuff. You need to have an idea about the type of feedback you’d like to receive.

Here’s what happens if you don’t do that—every designer knows what I’m talking about. You go into the review, show your work and then everyone spends half an hour talking about everything except what you need help with.

Having some idea about what you need help with also helps the reviewers. If you don’t come with problems, they have to suss out whatever issue you’re having. As a rule of thumb before designers do any design work we have them write a Basecamp document to begin documenting the design process. The first post is usually a kick-off for the product feature. They’ll write down the problems they are trying to solve.

If it’s an existing feature that we’re like replacing or improving, we’ll go right into the strengths of that. So we’d make sure not to lose them in the updated design. Then we write general design and product goals around what they are working on. Once you do that, you can you can look at the first iterations of the design and start asking questions—does this solve the problem that I stated previously? Does it achieve the goals that we think are important?

Once all of that is laid out, it makes asking the right questions easy. Then you can look back and say—well the goal is to reduce cycle steps, but it looks like you end up with the same number of steps.

What are we trying to accomplish? How do we get there? If we don’t know that, we’re going to have problems. No matter what happens, design really starts with writing. That’s how we make sure everyone is on the same page.

Or maybe we’re not on the same page. There have been so many times when I’ve had stuff written down and then have a product manager or an engineer on the team reach out. They’d say—I’ve read this again or I’ve been thinking about it, but I feel like we are missing this problem.

So designers prepare for these critiques. How often do those happen?

Right now at Buzzfeed we are doing product design critique about once a week. Every Tuesday we do a three person rotation. Everyone gets 30 minutes. It’s a pretty deep dive on the work. We only have a handful of designers right now so we get everyone we can into the room.

I’ll also add that critique should be happening all the time. Designers are discussing their ideas and process on Basecamp. It’s getting discussed with product managers, engineers and other designers. Every day when you’re sitting and chatting with your team you should be able to turn your monitor and say “Hey, can I run this by you real quick?”

In this post you wrote called The Fight, you had an incredible quote that I’d like to read.

I’ve so rarely seen someone leave a company because they achieved everything they thought they could achieve. It’s almost always because they’ve done the math and realize they’re playing a losing game.

In that post you allude to people being tired and frustrated. Some lose faith in the team or product or what the company stands for. How do you prevent that from happening? How do you make sure good employees don’t end up feeling like they are playing a losing game? 

Yeah. It’s funny.

I think I read some psychology behind when things are going wrong. When things start going south almost everyone knows it—you know it, they know it. When that starts happening a lot of places won’t admit that bad things are happening. Even worse, they’ll put out messaging about how awesome everything is.

Say I’m a designer, I’ve got a project that is a complete mess. I don’t think we’re doing the right thing—it’s a waste of time. I talk with my manager about how I feel. If my manager comes back and says everything is fine, things are okay—that’s not helpful. I’m still frustrated, I still know it’s wrong and everything is messed up. People start leaving in droves when that happens.

Admitting when things are messed up—or even just a little complicated—helps people not go crazy. Admitting when things are bad allows people to recalibrate. Perhaps, we can even identify the issue and rectify. At the very least we can admit that there’s something wrong though.

On the other hand, say that you’ve voiced a problem and nothing has happened. Nobody even listed. Why are you there. If you could fix it, you would. But if nobody else is going to fix it.

Admitting things won’t change the future, but it will help. Do you see why transparency is such an important value for me now? If we’re actually being transparent we can call out that this thing sucks and try and do something about it. I’ve never regretted it.

You’ve obviously hired a ton of designers. If someone is a college student, or graduating a bootcamp or teaching themself product design, what is one thing you’d tell them to focus on?

What’s the most important thing that they can do? Well, I like people that are curious, that teach themselves. I want someone who’s going to spend a weekend learning about CSS or open up X Code. And that aren’t going to make a giant impact with that right away. Buy understanding how that stuff works separates product designers from UI designers, visual designers and other similar design roles.

I also think it’s important that designers be able to walk through a side project. Basically it should show that you’re learning something new and are thinking about it. That’s how you get better.

And it’s hard, scary and frustrating to have to constantly learn new things. But you only get better if you push.

This has been a ton of fun. I feel like I’ve learned a ton. I guess, you know, before I let you go, you know, where can people find you?

If you want to read about product design or building design teams I publish a good bit on capwatkins.com You can always find me on Twitter @Cap.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today, Cap.

Awesome. Sam, this has been a really great conversation.