Geoff Teehan is a Product Design Director at Facebook working on News Feed, Interfaces and Feed Ads with his teams. Previously, he was one of the co-founders of the influential Toronto-based design agency Teehan+Lax. Recently we had the opportunity to chat with Geoff about his current role, what he's learned in the year since shutting down Teehan+Lax, and some of his philosophies for maintaining a productive work environment for him and his teams. Geoff is a refreshingly candid individual and offers great insights for both product managers and young designers.
Tell us about what your current role is and a little bit about what that encompasses?
I’m one of the Product Design Directors here at Facebook and I’m in charge of three main groups: News Feed, Interfaces and Feed Ads. Interfaces is our way of keeping standards and guidelines across all of Facebook. It’s the group that looks holistically across the entire experience. There are other teams–like Search, Profile, Notifications, etc–that are in charge of some very specific areas of the application. As a result there’s not one group looking after the whole platform outside of Interface. Its role is to create standards and guidelines and make sure that the experience is great. There’s a design manager that I have working with me on that, as well as a team of about 10 or so designers.
Feed Ads is the advertising experience that you see on the News Feed–the design manager on that is Jessica Watson–and she has a team of about 6 designers. Then there’s News Feed. I act as a design manager for that as well as the director and I have about 8 designers on that team. In total, my whole group is about 25 people and we oversee a lot of the bigger parts of Facebook. Since I act as design manager on News Feed, it’s where I spend the bulk of my time. I’m involved on projects inside of that group, and other groups, but primarily the bulk of my time is spent inside of News Feed. As a little side project, our team works closely with the Interfaces team and we have been publishing a lot of design resources, tools and files that help the broader design community outside of Facebook.
“As design director, I’m there to support the design managers and set them up with the environment they need to run the product team.”
Since you mentioned being both a design director and design manager, what are the main differences for you in terms of your responsibilities in those two roles?
As design director, I’m there to support the design managers and set them up with the environment they need to run the product team. That means having a high-level visibility around what they’re working on, meeting with the design managers and understanding what’s working, and what’s not. Finding out where they may need help, and making the appropriate connections or giving appropriate guidance. On the design manager side for News Feed, I’m involved more strategically in what we’re doing and from an execution and directional side of things as well. For the other two groups, the design managers maintain close relationships with the designers, and the individual contributors underneath them to manage their career growth. The work I do on the other areas, Interfaces and Feed Ads, is relatively minimal because I have great design managers that do the job there and can manage up to me when things aren’t working.
In your role overall what would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work you’re doing?
One is that this is a very large organization and as big as it is, it’s relatively flat in its architecture. There is a lot of autonomy given to the people doing the work, which is great. While there is process, there’s not so much that it gets in the way of doing the work. There are also a ton of different working styles here. Sometimes, those things can be difficult to work with. There are people who have worked here for a while that are very proficient and good at what they do. They know the ins and outs of this place and they like to work with a lot of autonomy and relative isolation; much like lot of designers. Some of them are very successful at that. I think that’s okay, but I think as the company has grown, that becomes a little bit more challenging to work within. I really prefer and think we can do better work when we work in pairs or we collaborate a little bit more. Figuring out ways to get people working in a more collaborative way has been a challenge. You can’t just put two people in a room and expect them to work together. There are certain dynamics and fit involved. There are also times in a project where you really do need to just sit, put your head down and do some work. There are also times when you need to come up for air and regroup with other people, get other opinions, and jam on ideas.
With regards to team management, are the challenges similar to what you faced when you ran Teehan+Lax versus what you’re facing now at Facebook?
I think it’s different. What came in the top of the funnel at Teehan+Lax, at least in terms of the talent, were usually from the same walk of life. They came from similar companies to Teehan+Lax. There wasn’t and still isn’t the type of atmosphere in Toronto that there is down here in the Bay Area. You get wildly different types of designers here and that is a big difference. The designers that would come to Teehan+Lax typically had been working at other ad or design agencies previously. As different as I like to think that Teehan+Lax was, to a certain extent, our working style was not unfamiliar to people who were coming in the door there.
Earlier on in your career, what was the turning point where you knew you wanted to start an agency rather than go work for another company?
It happened twice actually. When I first started, I was working for an Internet company that was doing web hosting, domain purchasing and web design. Web design was the fad. It was the mid-'90s so it was the super early days. What happened was I worked there for a while and then the company went bankrupt. There were great people working there and I found myself without a job. I decided to take a stab at doing my own thing, which I did. That was in the late 90’s. I did that for about two years and then one of our clients, a big digital agency called Modem Media, came along and I ended up taking a job with them. I enjoyed that. Making money again was nice, working on larger clients, and not having to worry about some of the things you worry about when you own your own business. Focusing on the work as a young designer was a refreshing change and something I think I needed.
That was great, but then it happened again, the dot-com bubble burst and I didn’t have a job anymore. I had been working with Jon [Lax] at Modem Media and we decided to start our thing. We found ourselves in a similar place where we looked around and didn’t see anything that interested us job wise, so we started our own company instead. We just fell into it. We figured we’d do it for six months or a year or however long the initial contracts we had would last and then we’d go get what we call “real jobs”. It wasn’t until we signed leases for photocopiers with 3-year commitments that we realized we were in it for the long-haul. It was one of the those silly things. Obviously we were subletting a space and we had bought equipment and we even had one staff member too, so it wasn’t like we weren’t committed. Even still, it felt like we could get out without too much damage. It wasn’t until we rented this Xerox copier that made it feel like something long term. The lease was on a 3-year term and we had to sign it. It was like $10,000 or $12,000, it wasn’t an insane amount of money, but back then it was this real commitment because getting out of that lease would be a big pain in the ass. This is one of the small things. Obviously, hiring employees was a big deal as well.
“Again, nobody really wanted to do it. The challenges it presented us didn’t interest us. I think, ultimately, if we had to kept going, it would have been like a sitcom that stayed on a few too many seasons and became unfunny.”
You guys grew Teehan+Lax into one of the more well-known and admirable design agencies and about a year ago, you and your partners decided to part ways. When you’ve built a business to the level you had, when do you know it’s time to move on and try something new?
I don’t think you ever know. I think you guess. We had, for some time, thought about it and talked about it, but not in serious ways. We had people, agencies and companies offer to buy us and most of the time, we wouldn’t even entertain those ideas. It wasn’t one thing that happened, it was a lot of different things. We had done a lot of work, and we had changed a lot in how we did that work. We had really focused in on product design, and saw changes in the industry where product design was becoming internalized within companies. Figuring out what to do after an initial 90-day engagement, and how to continually improve a product was difficult. Working at a distance and doing things for startups or for well-established digital companies has its limitations. There were times where we embedded ourselves in companies and I think that goes a long way especially if you’re building something at scale. You really need to understand the inner workings. You need to work with a lot of different teams cross-functionally and that’s very difficult to do in a 90-day contract.
There were many other things too where even the personal desires of many of us differed. With everything factored in, we had to have that conversation and try to figure out what was the right thing to do. Could we have just kept running Teehan+Lax for a while? Yeah, for sure. I think our desire to continue to want to reinvent ourselves had waned a little bit. It’s a pretty exhausting exercise that needs to happen and it has to happen on top of a lot of other things beyond just doing the work. Ultimately, nobody was really interested in doing that anymore.
It was about growth too, the company just desired to keep growing. No matter how much you want it to stay one size or no matter how successful you are, the company just wants to grow. We talked about opening other offices. Again, nobody really wanted to do it. The challenges it presented us didn’t interest us. I think, ultimately, if we had to kept going, it would have been like a sitcom that stayed on a few too many seasons and became unfunny.
“Coming to Facebook has taught me to grow through real change and to be more cognizant of how I am actually doing. It's easy to get comfortable and complacent, and that's when you stop growing or find yourself in less than ideal scenarios.”
What was the thing about Facebook that drove you guys in that direction?
We looked at a lot of different options for a long period of time and put a lot of thinking and due diligence in before landing here at Facebook. We met with a lot of great companies, and some not so great. Facebook painted a very clear and compelling picture for us. They were incredibly open and honest about what they would be working on, what they valued, and where they wanted to take the company. They also did a lot of good research on us to understand what our strengths and weaknesses were. Early on we had open and honest conversations about some of that stuff. It was very genuine. Compare and contrast that to some of the other companies we talked to and in some cases, they just wanted us to come onboard and figure everything else out after, and that just doesn’t fly.
The other thing about Facebook is that while everybody at Teehan+Lax didn’t come along, Facebook probably worked the hardest to maximize as many people as they could. There were some people that simply weren’t interested and then some whose roles inside of our company just made little sense at Facebook. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it’s something that made sense.
It’s been a year since the announcement of T+L closing, looking back what are some of the takeaways from the whole experience? What did you learn or what perspectives did you gain?
Leaving anything is difficult—no matter how good or bad it is. For the record, Teehan+Lax was amazing. But I think as humans we just generally struggle initially with change. I believe as we get older we resist change more. Coming to Facebook has taught me to grow through real change and to be more cognizant of how I am actually doing. It's easy to get comfortable and complacent, and that's when you stop growing or find yourself in less than ideal scenarios. I am now a big believer in forming habits. It's how I did a 180 on my health and, made changes to how I work. I make commitments to do something for 60 days straight so they stick—that's about how long it takes for us to form habits.
“As a manager it’s important that you look out for the calendars of your team as well. They need to have good, clean blocks of time to do work, so making sure their meetings are grouped together is key.”
What are some of your routines or ways you’ve learned to structure your day to accomplish everything that you need to do or be a part of in a day?
I get up super early at like 5:00 and then I work out for 90 minutes before starting my day. I think about what the one thing is that I need to accomplish that day. It’s my one main thing. I don’t have a work priority list and a personal priority list. I have one list and I prioritize everything. Whether it’s a phone call, setting up a meeting, a recruiting thing, writing a brief, scheduling car service, all of those things are on the list. I take a clean look at it every single day and decide what I’m going to accomplish and I try not to take on too much. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and stretched out if you try to take on too much.
Facebook has a heavy meeting culture–at least I know it does on my team–so I try to protect my calendar as much as I can. I will put in blocks of time so that people can’t block me out. If something is important they’ll reach out via email or messenger and I’ll open up a time. I found that helps me stay focused on the things I think I should be focused on. I have a lot of team meetings and product meetings, as is, so protecting my calendar has been a very good exercise and productivity boost for me.
As a manager it’s important that you look out for the calendars of your team as well. They need to have good, clean blocks of time to do work, so making sure their meetings are grouped together is key. On Wednesdays we have a work-from-home or no meetings day here. It’s a nice, full workday and that’s been positive. But periodically it’s important to ask your team how their calendar looks. If it looks like a shotgun blast, that’s not a great way to do a lot of good work.
“Fundamentally I’m a product designer at heart and one of the primary things that I love is shipping product.”
What are the tools you use that you’re touching on a daily basis?
Face-to-face communication is the tool I try to use more and more. I'm doing a lot more writing now, so Medium is something that I use a lot. Primarily it's communication tools and organizational tools.
When you find yourself disconnected from what you find meaningful about your work, how do you get yourself back into that space?
It ebbs and flows for sure. There are days where you're just not feeling it. Maybe you haven't really had any wins, or progress feels slow, or the stuff you're testing or putting into market isn't doing as well as you'd like it to. I think that now that I've made some personal changes I’ve gotten better at that. I do yoga every day and I find that gives me some good time in my own head. It’s helped me feel less discouraged and keeps me a lot more vibrant and interested, even when things aren't as good as they can be. I also don't keep stuff inside like I used to. I talk to people about it. I have a few people that I trust in my life now and openly communicate with them. Even sometimes the act of sharing the things aren't going as great as you'd like with someone else, is helpful.
What is the best career advice you've been given?
I think the best advice I've received was never given. It was always learned. I think when people just tell you things we tend to just throw them away a bit too easily. While we may take in the words, they often don't mean much until we've experienced something. When people say "time goes by quickly, make the most of it" or "you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it" it doesn't mean much. Sure, they're overused and vague, but they're actually super-fucking true. Sadly, I think 99% of people literally can't hear them for what they are, because it's too difficult for our brains to comprehend the scale of what they mean. For example, my eldest son Cole, turned 15 the other day. It was a big moment for me. One where I realized in a year he'd be getting his drivers license. It made me think about how quickly it really does go by. Of course, I'd heard that phrase a thousand times, but it didn't sink in until the passing of time gave it true meaning. I think the same could be said for "you can do anything…". It isn't until you've gotten there, or perhaps really seen good progress that you understand it's true. So, to me, I think trying to take note of positive changes and seeing them as part of something really big is important in helping recognize something as cliché as "you can do anything…".
“It's unbelievable to me the nuance when you're working at a product of this scale, and how the smallest decisions can have such great impact.”
Why do you do what you do? What makes your work so meaningful to you?
Over the past year here the team's grown immensely. I think it was 10 or 11 people when I joined, and now its at 25 or 26. It’s really enjoyable to see that growth. Not in size–that's definitely one thing–but it's more about seeing people grow. Watching them progress through the work that they're doing that you're hopefully guiding them on. That’s really enjoyable.
Fundamentally I’m a product designer at heart and one of the primary things that I love is shipping product. Putting tests in the market even if they're not doing well is just super fascinating and I love it. Facebook has been such a cool place to do that, because you're working at such scale and there's so many talented people here and they're able to push out tests so quickly and with so many iterations. It's fascinating, and empowering to understand how quickly you can get real feedback on whether or not your idea is working. That's been really cool.
To understand that making something two pixels larger has meaningful impact in terms of how people engage with it, that’s unreal. It's unbelievable to me the nuance when you're working at a product of this scale, and how the smallest decisions can have such great impact. We never really got to experience it at Teehan+Lax to the scale of this. Even though we worked with some of those companies like Google and Facebook and other large companies. Even though you're partnering up and you're working closely, you're not really as involved over a longer period of time to really understand. Being on the inside now, it's been pretty eye opening.
Who would you want to see featured on Ways We Work?
Ben Cline, who runs Rally. I think they just do great work, and he's an owner but he's also a very hands-on guy. I'd be interested to understand from him how he balances that. What he enjoys.
I think Dann Petty is a really interesting guy. He's a super nomad. Like the lifetime freelancer guy. He's tried going full time. He contracts out, and now he's doing big conferences. He's just constantly reinventing himself, so I think ... He is so selfless, he rarely talks about himself. I think that I'd be interested to hear from him.