Aspire to Tech: Senior Director, User Experience at Elastic Path

Career Spotlight – Takumi Miyazaki

What is your role? What is your title? Where are you located? How long have you been doing it?

My role is to lead the UX designers at Elastic Path and manage them as part of the product organization. My title is Senior Director, User Experience and I am located in Vancouver. I’ve been in Vancouver for about 30 years now – I’m originally from Japan. I’ve been a UX designer for roughly 10 years now, but if you go back to when I was a web designer, I’ve been doing it for around 15 years.

What makes your job interesting?

I think a lot of it boils down to making better experiences for people. Which in turn leads to people generally being happier. It’s identifying and solving problems. As a designer, you solve problems – whether that’s the hands-on day-to-day work, doing your research, mapping out wireframes, prototyping or testing. The things that typically get associated with the designers’ deliverables are just artifacts that get generated from uncovering and solving problems. That’s the part that I find interesting – problem-solving. That and leading and managing designers as well. Whether that’s helping them hone their skills, or helping them with their career growth, and troubleshooting what may or may not be working with their day-to-day relationships at work. It’s just another part of problem-solving. That’s really what drives me.

What is the most fun? What is the most challenging?

Seeing how our work impacts users, that’s probably the most fun. I remember in the past there was one fairly complicated project where we were put into a test store. We were going to visit that store to see how it was doing, and the person coordinating warned us that the store manager was great, but they were very blunt. We were warned to be ready for blunt feedback, but when we got there the store manager was all smiles. They thanked us, saying that what we built for the test store was going to really help them a lot, and how great it will be for their processes. That impact is the most fun to me!

The most challenging – not having enough hours in the day. That’s more a challenge of prioritization, because if you prioritize based on what you know to be true at that moment, then you can say I know what I know, and prioritize, based on that. It’s managing the fear of not knowing that is the most challenging. You might know the Yoda-ism “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” So as a manager, you have to not let fear get to you and make you suffer. If a manager is suffering, I think that suffering can cascade down to other people. Fear often leads to micromanaging. I think that’s why a lot of people want to control all the variables. The main thing is to not let fear eat you up.

How does your role help drive the company’s success?

I do a series of onboarding activities for the company – usually for the designers. And there’s a slide in one of our onboarding decks, with six pictures. The first one is a picture of an empty room. The second one is an empty room with two cardboard boxes filled with files. The third one is a glass walled conference room, with a chair sitting outside it. The fourth one is a conference room with a kids’ table next to it. The fifth one is a whiteboard that has UX written on it with chairs surrounding it. And the sixth one is this big conference-style room with UX artifacts everywhere.

The UX maturity of a lot of organizations is represented by one of those six pictures. The empty room represents a total lack of it, then it goes to the cardboard box where UX is living in this room. It is a thing, but just sits in the room – nobody really uses it. The glass walled room with chair outside it represents UX having a seat at the table, but not really being considered in the decision making. The next images show UX taking a more prominent role until the last image where it appears to be completely and fully integrated into the boardroom – which obviously represents the business as a whole.

The reason I use that example is that when I started at Elastic Path, UX was like that seat sitting outside the conference room, where we did have some influence, but not so much in what we were building. We were just grafting UI onto the APIs, for instance. So, I think the impact that I’ve had, alongside the team of designers that I lead, is that we’ve really brought UX to the forefront. I think that’s the biggest impact – spreading that understanding of design, user experience, and just being that reminder, that nagging voice in the back of their head saying user experiences are important. Now people at Elastic Path are embracing user experience more beyond just UI but also to how we build the API’s as well.

What does a typical day look like for you? What do you actually spend your time doing?

I still do hands-on design work such as when I need to fill a gap. The biggest thing I do on a day-to-day basis is facilitating communication and alignment throughout our department and for UX as it fits into the whole organization. It isn’t easy when we are fully remote – achieving alignment is hard! Three people can leave the same meeting, and if you asked them what the takeaways were, you’d get three different answers. That’s a lot of my day-to-day is like coordinating with the designers, coordinating with each of the squads, working on different features and problems to be solved, and making sure that the alignment is there.

Tell us about your career history?

Way back in high school, I had a tech teacher that introduced us to this wonderful thing called the Internet – the World Wide Web. That’s what sparked my keen interest in the web. I was also a big video game fan, and I really wanted to make video games so initially, I wanted to become a programmer. I started to study as one, but in university I realized I did not like coding.

When I started my education down this path, I was trying to figure out what to do. I really did find the Internet fascinating. I started to gear into web design and started taking contract jobs to pay for school. That led me down this path to become a web designer, then to a front-end developer, then to being a UI designer. I started off working in agency settings, working with large clients like Microsoft to much smaller ones. From there, I moved into the commerce space, working with TELUS and MEC. As my career has progressed from junior to intermediate design to senior design lead, I have also built up my teams as well. That’s how it landed at Elastic Path.

What was your very first job and how did your career path take you to where you are today?

My first job was answering phone calls for my dad’s appliance repair business. Although I wasn’t getting paid, it prepared me to deal with people, which is key in any line of work.

In terms of a tech job, it was probably taking contract jobs to build websites. This is back in the day when everybody first wanted a website, and we didn’t have platforms like Squarespace or Wix that let you spin up sites quickly. I spent a lot of time creating custom sites and their landing pages – I do think that led me down the path that I am on.

Where might you go next? What’s your next role?

While I eventually would like to retire, I do love Tech. Every sector relies on tech now. In the future, I think I will be in tech, and I will still be leading design. I don’t see myself moving into product management like some designers do, even though, from a career ladder perspective, design having somewhat of a ceiling in the industry. You just don’t see a lot of high-level designer roles, especially after the director level but I like where I am, and I like working with my team, so I’ll continue to do that. But if you asked me 5 years ago, I didn’t think I’d get married either, and I was wrong about that!

What motivates you for your future career? Will you stay in tech?

It’s funny because, as an introvert, I generally don’t like working with people but as a designer, you’re constantly interacting with people. So, it’s funny to me, but what motivates me now is helping the designers that I work with in their careers, and with their skills and growth. One of the things I like to say is that I want to raise somebody in the company so that they can eventually take my place. That motivates me.

I will absolutely stay in tech. Maybe in my twilight years, I’ll do some writing because that is something I really enjoy. Maybe I’ll write a couple of books, but they’ll probably be about tech anyway.

Any final words of advice, or advice for young people?

Ask questions. Before even applying for a job, reach out to people who work there and get their perspective. Ask questions during the interview. And even more importantly, after persevering and getting that hard-earned job, ask lots of questions. It’s okay to not know because you’re new. It goes back to that fear thing. Use that fear of uncertainty to drive you in your career.