Valjean Clark

Engineer? Designer? Product Manager?

Since my very first job as a user researcher, I’ve found it difficult to accept a narrow role.

I remember getting assigned user research projects where the research felt pointless because I already knew intuitively how to design a better solution. So I quickly pivoted into interaction design, where I found myself on a small team where it didn’t seem useful for me to purely focus on design work, as there was a lot of code to write. So after creating low to medium fidelity designs, I jumped in with the engineers to help get the feature built.

At my next job I was officially a software engineer, but I also spent a lot of time whiteboarding and working closely with designers and product managers. It never made sense to work on something if the designs didn’t feel complete to me, so I’ve always felt it’s a better use of my time to help design and product until what we want to build makes sense.

When I ran a design team, our lack of a component library was slowing down the engineering team, so I spent the first few months in the role writing UI components.

All I know is that, whenever I have a job where I’m supposed to stay in my lane, I feel constrained, and conversely, when I’m encouraged to operate outside of the traditional bounds of my role, I’m motivated and engaged.

A couple of people have told me to pick one role or otherwise risk career growth. I know what they mean, and to an extent they have even been right - it is hard to follow a particular career path - but it kind of doesn’t matter because I like what I like and I can’t really change that.

For several years, I thought this meant I needed to start my own company. If I always see beyond my role and tend to look at the whole system, isn’t running the whole company the inevitable conclusion?

Recently I’m not as sure. I still love the idea of starting a company, it’s just that, well, it’s really hard to find that high-conviction idea!

I know that my ability to wear multiple hats is valuable, I just haven’t quite figured out how to build a career around it yet. I could try managing an engineering, product, and design organization - that would allow me to try to “scale” my philosophy toward building products. I could always try my hand at building another product. Or I can just keep working at early stage startups, though this doesn’t always provide the promised level of autonomy.