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Pinterest Founder Evan Sharp On How To Manage Design Talent

The architect-turned-entrepreneur talks about dropping out of grad school and treating staff like a soccer team.

Pinterest Founder Evan Sharp On How To Manage Design Talent
Image: Pinterest

Khoi Vinh: Was your grad school experience in architecture enjoyable?
Evan Sharp: It was revelatory, actually. I’ve always been a good student, made good enough grades to do well, and enjoyed a lot of different subjects. It wasn’t until I went to architecture school, though, that I really loved school work. All of a sudden I was working harder than everybody else. I felt like I had found what I should have been doing for years. I got addicted to the hands-on problem-solving through the process of making or designing something. Architecture school was really influential and amazing.

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You hadn’t had that approach to solving problems before then?
I mean, growing up I had been lucky enough to have my dad’s old hand-me-down Macs. I used Photoshop for years and used to draw skins for MP3 players and draw icons for Mac OS 8. I had always done pixel-level stuff for fun, not realizing that was a career. And I had never done any of those things as, like you said, a method of solving a problem. For me those things felt like a hobby. It was something I did when I was messing around instead of doing my homework.

What’s it been like to build Pinterest into a company, from the ground up?
We ended up hiring people at Pinterest who I feel like are my peers. Even though technically I manage them, I have been able to create that environment. When you’re the co-founder you get to pick the people. So by definition for me it’s one of the best companies to work at because I made the company and it’s a reflection of me in some ways.

You left Facebook to do Pinterest full time, when the overall user base was still small. How would you describe your job at the company in those early days?
That was the best. My job was to build a startup with Ben and then do all the design and front-end code on the web—we didn’t have an iPhone app at that time.

Was it hard?
What keeps me going is knowing that not many people have the basics. There are not many people who understand that creative management is a very different thing than normal management. You don’t manage accounts like you manage designers. Learning what those differences are and freeing yourself to follow your instincts has been a good thing for me to learn. The process has been painful. I always feel like I’m behind. Just like how I learned design, I learned: “We try it. It breaks. You try it again.” Then find someone who can be your mentor who is just further enough along than you are, that you admire, and get their advice and assistance.

Did you have any management expertise before Pinterest?
No. That’s something that I have learned from scratch at Pinterest, and I have lots of thoughts about it that I think are at least moderately interesting. What I’ve learned about managing designers is that it’s like managing a soccer team. It’s about talent. You treat them very differently than you treat other designers who are more junior or who aren’t as talented. A lot of management ends up being about dealing with people who aren’t performing as well as they should be, and that consumes a lot of time. It can teach you the wrong lessons. It can teach you to normalize people’s behaviors to say, “Here is what you’re not doing well,” rather than saying, “How can I help you do your best work?”

Another way of saying it might be that most of the designers out there could be bettering their craft in many ways—they could be better visual designers, better interaction designers, better coders, whatever it is. So you need to hire people who see their weaknesses. That’s one of the most important things. If you have a good eye for design, it means that you’re set up well to see what you’re good and bad at. If you see what you’re bad at, you’re going to work on it to make yourself better, and that’s at the core of any great design team.

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If you hire designers who think they’re the shit, it’s just not going to work. It’s like an exercise in psychological triage to hire the right people, and then you have to separate out the designers who are bad in an area from the designers who just have a weakness they are going to overcome. It’s tough because there aren’t a lot of really talented, self-aware designers out there. I think we have a few of them at Pinterest now, designers who get UI and product and experience. We do not draw out a black-and-white line between design and engineering.

This interview was condensed and edited with the author’s permission. For more of Felton’s interview and interviews with more digital designers, buy the How They Got There e-book here.