Diógenes Brito was one of the first members of Slack’s product design team and is currently a Senior Product Designer for Slack’s Platform. In this interview with Slack’s Design + Research blog, he chats career growth, leadership, handling organizational ambiguity, and what’s ahead for Slack, the product. Content condensed and edited.
Slack Design: Okay, so why don’t we start by you giving me an overview of Dio, the designer?
Dio: I’m a senior product designer. I work on the platform team. Platform is anything that interacts with Slack that isn’t Slack, that’s how I describe it — any service or thing that you want to build. I was previously an interface designer with a variety of different titles and responsibilities at Squarespace and LinkedIn. I’ve been at Slack four years and four months.
How did you get into design? Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
I did not always know. I always knew I wanted to make stuff. I always liked invention, and I thought to myself, I’m going to do engineering because it’s obviously the hardest thing to do. I could always do something easier after school, but it’s harder to go in the other direction. You know, I could I could major engineering and decide to become a writer, but I can’t major in English and then become an engineer — that was my rationale. So I went through the Engineering Handbook to pick an engineering major. I figured I might want to do computer systems engineering, which was — at least at my school — half electrical engineering and computer science. So I’m thinking you know, make robots and program them to destroy.
But it turns out that electric engineering is super boring, to me — very theoretical. So I looked for other things, and I found mechanical engineering, with all these interesting classes, project-based classes where you made stuff and it was cool. Except for a few classes that sounded really boring: you know, differential equations, fluid mechanics and thermodynamics and stuff for car engines, jet engines. And then right underneath that same major was another variation of it called product design. It turns out that it was the same but with the boring classes removed and replaced with studio art, psychology, and design.
I went to declare that major, and while I was there the major advisor described to me what a designer was and what sort of person they are — what they’re interested in, what they do, and I was just like, Yes, that’s me. I like all that stuff. I’m that person. I’m going to be that, then.
When you’ve found yourself in leadership positions, how have you ended up there?
I might not even be a leader at all, but I have been in situations where I realized that there needs to be some leadership that is currently not happening. Because I think the default human condition is what I think of as “the study group.” You’ll have the assignment; you’ll want to do a good job and get straight A’s, but deep inside, you want to get away with as little work as possible. So you’ll volunteer, but you look around the room and make sure like no one else is going to volunteer first. Especially if you’re a maker — you find great satisfaction in making — the part of deciding what to make is comparatively less interesting.
So how have I found myself in that position? On projects where we have to accomplish something, and no one knows how, I look around. Or I’m frustrated because I don’t have the direction of what to make. And it’s like, wow, I am going to tell myself what to make, even though maybe I wish someone else would. I’m just gonna have to make it happen. But it’s less energizing or satisfying that just purely focusing on the design component. Ambiguity is always tiring; the blank page is very scary. The really fun part is invention — having the idea.
Do you think, organizationally, Slack has more or less ambiguity than other places?
It’s hard to say: Startups, newer companies, and younger products always have more ambiguity.
It’s always good and bad at the same time; the ambiguity is also where you get extra latitude and autonomy and the ability to have greater impact. Places where you have no ambiguity are usually also a lot more boring and structured in a way that’s bureaucratic — if you know exactly what you’re doing and how and when it has to be out, that’s fine. But if you’re trying to come up with something new, that’s not the way to do it.
So I don’t know that we have any more than other places. You know, we have only the one product and we have a good set of values. We have a good number of implicit ways of prioritizing and making trade-offs that are going to get better and better. We’re selling organizational transformation. This is the product that is going to help your other tools work better. It’s clear.
When you have thought about like moving to new jobs throughout your career, do you think about component of ambiguity and about how much you might want or not?
I think when I went to Squarespace I wanted to be associated with a product that I think is designed well. I already liked it; it seemed like they had skills, and I wanted to contribute and also feel the benefits of being surrounded by people on top of their game.
And obviously you want to avoid the sinking ship, but on the other hand, there’s a lot of opportunity in making something that’s not designed well a lot better. For example, I considered really trying to get a job at an app I use a lot but think is like, so garbage. And it would be so easy to make any of it better. But I actually think that generally, when things are that bad, it’s because of structural and organizational problems. So it could be that I could land there and not be able to make anything better. It’s like a relationship. You’re trying to choose like, what is a set of problems that I want on an ongoing basis? Yeah, you’re always going to have some, so you have to choose your favorites.
One of the reasons I came to Slack is that the Squarespace values are very… I really resonated with them, but they were about doing the work and the product itself, and they weren’t personal or life values. At Slack, I have a very high overlap, or 100% overlap with our values as a way of being a person generally. Even if it wasn’t in the context of work, I will be nice to people and playful and like doing stuff that’s worth doing well. It’s just how I want to be as a human being.
What would you tell somebody who was thinking about joining Slack?
I’d tell them about our culture and about — I don’t know, what are the problems that we have here? We have mostly growing pains, growing pains problems. We have the problem of everything changing all the time, and it’s the best problem, because it’s due to growth and success.
I really enjoy how I can think at a high level at Slack. We do a good job of reasoning from first principles and applying the creative process to everything, asking, why do it this way? Not just because it was done this way before, but, what is our current situation? What’s the best way to do it, try and test and iterate and try again. If you want perfectly calcified structure with, you know, years of incremental refinement and stability, you’re not going to get it. But the upside is very high. Yeah. Yeah.