Poornima Vijayashanker

How Creators Can Become Company Leaders


I’ve got a new episode of FemgineerTV for you!

In this episode, we’ll be talking about why traditional CEOs have been replaced by a new breed called the design executive officer (DEO), and how companies are basically being led by executives who embrace design thinking.

To help us out, I’ve invited Maria Giudice, formerly the founder of Hot Studio. Maria built and successfully ran Hot Studio through three tech busts, so I’d say that’s enough of a reason for me to want to learn from this amazing design leader! Hot Studio was eventually acquired by Facebook. Maria’s latest role is as the VP of Experience Design at Autodesk and she has coauthored a new book called The Rise of The DEO.

Whether you’re a leader or aspire to be one, you won’t want to miss this episode, because Maria and are I are going to be talking all about DEOs, including how they:

  • are different from traditional CEOs
  • evaluate and take risks
  • are systems-level thinkers
  • use their intuition to guide their decision making
  • have cultivated a high level of social intelligence
  • care about getting shit done!
  • co-create with their teams and manage different roles
  • give employees permission to fail
  • influence and shape a company’s culture through their unique leadership style

Maria also has one of the coolest offices I have ever been in, and you’ll love checking it out, too!

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How Creators Can Become Company Leaders Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to the 13th episode of FemgineerTV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer.

In this show, I host innovators who help me debunk myths and misconceptions related to building tech products and companies. Today we’re going to be talking about why traditional CEOs have been replaced by DEOs, Design Executive Officers. If you think about back to 1937, the company’s life expectancy was about 75 years. Now it’s been cut down to 15. If you look at traditional companies like Kodak, Xerox, and Lotus, they’ve all been replaced by younger competitors. And most of these younger competitors are being led by DEOs—creators who have become leaders.

I’ve invited Maria Giudice, who was formerly the founder of Hot Studio and is now the VP of Experience Design at Autodesk, to shed some light into how creators have become leaders. She’s written a lot about this topic in her new book, The Rise of the DEO.

Thanks for joining us today, Maria.

Maria Giudice: I’m so happy to be here to talk about my book and all the cool things that are happening at Autodesk.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I’d love to hear more. Before we get started, you and I met about a couple months ago in Milan at a really cool conference.

Maria Giudice: What a terrible place to meet.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I know. The thing I loved about hearing your talk was you had so many different experiences. I want to start off by talking about how you got started in design. What lured you into design and the first career that you had?

Maria Giudice: Actually it’s interesting because I think of my life as a series of accidents. Which, actually, I think that’s a healthy way to think about life these days. Rather than thinking that you have this life plan, it’s really about being aware of opportunities.

I started out as a painter. I was very young. I started painting. My uncle who is a pretty well-known painter in the sci-fi world, named Frank Rizzetta. I was really influenced by him. I was like, “I want to be just like him.” So I started painting and I thought I was going to be a fine artist. I had no idea, I had no desire to actually be a designer, so I was the fine artist.

As I was younger, I started picking up lettering. I started lettering and painting and doing band posters. But that wasn’t graphic design. No, no, no. I’m a fine artist. I went to Cooper Union for a Bachelor’s of Fine Art. I say, “I went in as a fine artist and came out as a graphic designer.” I started taking design classes, still completely in denial that I was a designer.

I was actually really disillusioned with design in general. This was in the ’80s where design was first of all pre-Mac and it was all about the famous designers. It was Pushpin studios and Vignelli and Pentagram. Designers had to look a certain way and they had to act a certain way. I’m a girl from Staten Island, I did not look like what you would consider a designer in New York.

I also thought that design seemed very robotic and automatic. It’s like, “I learn how to use these fonts with this white space with these images. You slap it together. You call it a day. It’s a beautiful design.” It wasn’t until my senior year of college when I met a man who came to talk to our class named, Richard Saul Wurman. Do you know who he is?

Poornima Vijayashanker: I know but I’m sure our viewers don’t know.

Maria Giudice: Richard Saul Wurman, he started out his career as an architect. In the ’80s, he was an architect turned designer but considered the bad boy of graphic design. He sauntered into my class. He looked at all of these budding designers. He basically looked at all them and came in with a big scarf, sauntered in. He was like, “You. All of you designers. You’re all full of shit.” This is the history that I remember, by the way. Richard might have a different vision, but he was like, “You’re all full of shit. Design is not this aesthetic exercise. Design is about helping people make sense of the world.” It was like this moment, “Oh my God—”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Clarity.

Maria Giudice: “—I’m a designer. There’s meaning.” Actually that was the moment when I realized I was a designer. That design is about being in service to others and it was sort of my life goal to go out there and create systems that help people have a better life.

So I worked with him right out of school. That’s how I became a designer.

Poornima Vijayashanker: For those of you that don’t know, Richard is actually the founder of TED.

Maria Giudice: Right. The original TED conference. He started out his career as an architect like I said and then he started designing these guidebooks called ACCESS guides. So I worked for him. He’s like, “You’re Italian. You could design Rome ACCESS.” I was like, “Can I go to Italy?” “No, but here. Design this book.”

He was designing guidebooks and he founded TED. Then he got the gig to redesign the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages in California which was like, “What a great opportunity. For some people.” For some people would think, “The Yellow Pages? What a horrible project.” But for me I was thinking, “This is the one piece of information that connects people to their community.” To have an opportunity to reimagine what the Yellow Pages could be for people was enough for me to accidentally move to the Bay Area from New York.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Richard was a big mentor.

Maria Giudice: Big mentor.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You moved to the Bay Area and you’re designing guidebooks. How do you go from designing guidebooks to then founding your own agency, Hot Studio?

Maria Giudice: Again, completely accidentally. I moved out here in 1987 with a girlfriend of mine. We drove cross-country. Sandra Kelch, who really actually, I think that was one of the reasons why I went out here. She was moving out here. I was like, “Look, I can go on a road trip with you.” So we came out together and started designing, built. Really helped build the San Francisco office which was called The Understanding Business and we were designing Yellow Pages. We were redesigning, reimagining what the Yellow Pages could be.

My job was to actually design all the maps and to build a team around information design and all the maps in all the Yellow Pages. When we shortly thereafter, after I arrived, suddenly these computers wound up on people’s desks. Richard was very early on with adopting technology for design. To go back at Cooper Union, Cooper Union is a school that was founded in 1850s which was an architecture and engineering school. I never understood. I was like, “Why would those three things be related?” Then suddenly you have this computer in front of you and suddenly art, architecture, and engineering, it becomes your career. That mashup happened and I fell in love with that combination.

So I learned how to use computers to design basically printed systems. After about three years of working for Richard and designing, basically being part of this digital revolution, the same girlfriend was now in Japan. She’s teaching English. She says, “I’m going to quit my job and travel for three months.” I was like, “I’m ready to quit my job.” So I traveled for three months with her and some other friends. I came back and I didn’t have a job so I started freelancing.

I had accidentally become this expert in what they call, digital call, “pre-press.” Helping designer. I assisted in designing these series of guidebooks to teach designers how to use computers to design. These books became runaway successes for Agfa.

After I left The Understanding Business, I started freelancing and kept getting busier. Asking people to help. The next thing you know, I had a company. Then in the ’90s, the Internet came round and started working with apps and websites and kept getting busier. The next thing you know I had a company and 15 years later I had a hundred people working for me for Hot Studio.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Then Hot Studio got acquired by Facebook. What was that like?

Maria Giudice: Anybody goes through an acquisition will be drinking.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Hopefully a celebratory drink.

Maria Giudice: Celebratory or any other. It was amazing. Facebook actually was one of my clients. One of the things about Hot Studio is we would work with, not for, clients. Which meant that often times we work inside companies anyway and I have the best talent. I had attracted and retained the best designers in the industry.

I also saw how agencies were going to change. How companies like Autodesk, like Facebook were really starting to value design and understanding that actually it’s not really the technology. It’s around designing great experiences that people will love. You need good designers for that. So it was a natural fit for us to be acquired by product design team.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You were part of Facebook and you ended up here at Autodesk. How did that come about?

Maria Giudice: I like to tell people, “It’s less about me leaving Facebook which was an amazing experience for me.” At Facebook I learned how to design at-scale. I got to work with amazing people like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. I got to work with some of the smartest people in the industry. I learned so much at Facebook. But it was less about leaving Facebook and more about joining Autodesk.

Autodesk was one of my clients as well. Actually the CEO, Carl Bass, of Autodesk is featured in my book, Rise of the DEO, which was before joining Autodesk. I’ve always admired Autodesk as a company and I’ve admired Carl as a leader. Autodesk contacted me and said, “We’re really looking at moving the company from being one whose history was rooted in delivering really complex products once a year to creating a continuous connected experience for our customers. So moving the company from being product-centric to being customer-driven. Customer-centered. We need a strong design leader to build design as a mindset shift inside the company.” I was like, “That’s an opportunity I can’t pass up.”

It’s a perfect blending of being a founder and CEO of Hot Studio, working inside a product company like Facebook, and now realizing the DEO dream at a company like Autodesk. It was perfect transition for me. I’m so happy to be here.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You’ve had so many great experiences in your career. As a founder, working at Facebook, now at Autodesk. Throughout all of these, I know you’ve maintained yourself as a creator and also a leader. What was the inspiration point that you decided, “Now it’s time to sit down and put all of this into a book?”

Maria Giudice: It started in about 2010, 2011, when I was invited to speak at TEDxPresidio in San Francisco. I remember, “Yay! Holy shit.” Panicking. I was talking to some consultants that I was working with called Tech Talks and they were helping me develop a point of view about design and speaking and all that. I went, “Kevin, Christie,” I was like, “I’m invited to speak at this conference but I lead a design studio. There’s really nothing special about what I do.” They looked at me and went, “Are you kidding, Maria? You lead a company like nobody I’ve ever seen. It’s like you don’t really follow the traditional rules. You treat every problem as if it’s a design problem. You know what you are? You are a DEO.”

They put that idea in my head. They work with all of these different founders and different companies and I had no idea that I actually was leading and driving my design studio differently than traditional companies. They pointed that out to me that actually I do things very differently.

So I started thinking about how I run Hot Studio. Then I started doing research around the kinds of things that I was doing and realized that I’m not the only person. There’s in fact people, leaders, who are doing things very differently. They are not following the traditional rules. They’re agents for change. They are people-centered. They’re all of these things. Then suddenly there was this community of people who had these characteristics. I wanted to bring out those attributes and tell their story as well.

I gave a 20-minute talk and it really resonated with people. As a matter of fact, people would come up to me and go, “Now I know who I am. I never had a label. I was always the weird leader.” Then people asked me to continue to speak on the topic so I kept continuing doing research. Then I had enough research to actually put a book together. Then this woman, my co-author Christopher Ireland, she was the former CEO of Cheskin. She sold her company to WPP back in the day. Her and I teach a class called “Business and Design” at CCA. She said, “You know what? This topic is near and dear to me. Let’s do it together.” It was like, “We’re going to do this book.”

And we complement each other. It was not only an important book to do but it was also a fun project to do with my co-author.

Poornima Vijayashanker: In the book, you cover six traits for a DEO. Before we get into that, I want to start by talking about what a traditional CEO is. What are the traits of a traditional CEO so that our viewers will get a sense of the contrast between the two. Let’s talk about the old way of leading.

Maria Giudice: The old way of leading, it’s really based in the whole industrial-age model where a leader is supposed to have a command and control attitude. The leader is the person who takes all of the data and then decides or mandates what to do. The traditional businesses are incredibly hierarchical. You move up the ladder. It’s a ladder. It’s like, “First you come in in the mail room. Then you work your way up to do this. Then you become a manager of people.” It’s a very predictable way to move up the ladder and there are boundaries around what you’re responsible for.

You operate in silos. And really the way you move up is by your own personal net worth. It’s like, “I’m going to accomplish this. I’m going to take credit. Therefore I can move up.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: One of my favorite quotes from your book is, “There are no longer career ladders; it’s been replaced with the trampoline.”

Maria Giudice: Right. Which is exactly the difference between how our society is very different. Now we live in a world where you can’t do anything without collaboration. Not only collaborating but collaborating with people who may not agree with you. Multi-disciplinary. The world is so complex now that you can’t solve problems one at a time. You have to be thinking in systems. You have to make decisions that have impacts on systems. In order to do that, you have to work with many different people in different contexts. And it’s also a global society.

All of these things force people to have to change from being very linearly thinking but thinking about jumping, literally jumping from one thing to the other. You mentioned the data point around companies having a lifespan of 75 years and now it’s 15 years. I always like to remind people that Facebook’s only 12 years old.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Hopefully it’ll be around for more than a couple more years.

Maria Giudice: They will or they might turn into something else or whatever. Also the average amount of jobs that people have has changed. Used to be, I don’t know about your parents but my parents, they grew up at a time where you took a job…my father got out of the war and joined the phone company and he worked in the phone company until the day he retired.

Poornima Vijayashanker: This explains the inspiration for the Yellow Pages.

Maria Giudice: There you go. It was always considered bad to change your job. Now people have six, 10 jobs, 10 different jobs in their lifetime. And that’s what it’s supposed to be. Technology. If you are in a tech company the average tenure is two years. Which I don’t know is good or bad but that’s what it is. So you have to be jumping. You have to be thinking about, “What’s the value that I could add right now?” Then when you change or you grow, have the courage to move on.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s a great segue into the first trait that you mention that DEOs have, which is risk. Talk to me about risk. How do DEOs embrace risk differently than a CEO?

Maria Giudice: I think risk is synonymous with failure. Traditional CEOs, their whole job is about mitigating risk. It’s about—risk is a scary thing. DEOs use risk as connective tissue. It’s fluid. It’s like you’re constantly assessing how far you can push it. It’s really more about taking smart risks and taking smart failures.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s where I think the systems-level thinking comes in, right?

Maria Giudice: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You mentioned that’s another trait. Talk to me about, how do DEOs think in terms of systems?

Maria Giudice: I mentioned that the traditional CEO, they solve problems linearly. One at a time. Give me a problem, I will solve it. What’s the next problem? I will solve it. Now because the world is globally interconnected, because you’re working with people in different contexts, you have to be thinking about, you have to be having a vision of the whole system. Which is why designers are trained to be system thinkers, which is why DEOs are so critical to businesses, is that you have to look at the patterns. You have to think in patterns. You have to identify patterns. And you have to look at cause and effect.

When you’re making a decision, you have to be thinking about, “First of all, there’s the problem and then there’s the real problem.” Designers are really good at decoding what the real problem is and how that problem has an impact on the entire system.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You also mentioned that they use their intuition a lot. I know that can be hard for people out there because that means you have to justify your decision making and it’s based on intuition. How do DEOs embrace intuition?

Maria Giudice: In a world where we’re so obsessed with analytics, we are so obsessed and we keep talking about measuring everything, it’s really not going completely intuitive like, “Analytics are bad. Stay away from analytics. They don’t give you the whole story.” It’s not saying about, embrace analytics. I always say, “You have to have the what and the why.” Being analytical will give you the what but it doesn’t tell you the why and it doesn’t give you the edges. It may not even get you to the root cause. Intuition gives you that flexibility. It makes you feel your way through a problem.

DEOs have to live in this juxtaposition between analytics and creativity. And intuition is really strong. Sometimes you have to really go with your gut. You can back it up with analytics later or you have analytics and then you go with your gut. The DEO plays in this world and they are comfortable with not quantifying everything.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Along those lines also you mentioned social intelligence as another trait. How are DEOs positioned to be more socially intelligent than the traditional CEO model?

Maria Giudice: Again, connected to what designers are trained to do. Designers are trained, good ones are trained to look at the world with a sympathetic and empathetic lens. Designers are trained to walk around with your eyes wide open. I always tell people, “What’s the one thing you can do? The first thing is, just look up. Look up and be aware of the world. Be aware of how you can have a positive impact on people.” We’re only here for a short period of time. I always say, “You have to treat everyday as if it’s your last.” Then, “How are you contributing to society at large.”

That’s what it means to be people-centered. In order to be people-centered, you have to be socially intelligent. You have to have empathy and care about people. It’s not just your customers. You have to care about your coworkers. You have to care about your community and also understand that ultimately we’re here to focus and do things on behalf of people. That’s where social intelligence comes in.

Poornima Vijayashanker: At the same time as we are evaluating all this stuff, DEOs also love to GSD. Get shit done. Yes. You got the mug for it. As creators, though, they’re creating and their team is creating, how do they GSD better than other folks?

Maria Giudice: This is another thing in that you can’t live in this world of just vision. Thomas Edison said, let’s see. Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” That is amazing. At the end of the day you have to move the needle. Put a stake in the ground and get it done. It’s not just about getting it done. You have to be looking at quality of experience.

I think a lot of people make this mistake when they talk about the minimum viable product, for example. I love the idea of minimum viable product but it’s not really about minimum viable product. In my world, it’s about creating the minimum lovable product.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I like that.

Maria Giudice: What is the thing that you can execute that ultimately people will love. It’s not about just getting shit done because you’ve got to get something out there. It is about having a vision but being able to execute. That’s again on a continuum.

Poornima Vijayashanker: The final trait that you mentioned is co-creation. I know this is something I struggled with as an engineer because you love to create and often times that can be offputting as a leader, because of end-up micromanaging your team or you really shouldn’t be doing the work, your team should be doing it in order to scale. How do you balance that co-creation? How do DEOs create while their team is also creating?

Maria Giudice: This is where the get shit done thing comes into place. People often say, “Oh, collaboration. Oh, co-creation.” That just means it’s going to take longer to do things because it takes more people. The reality is that diversity makes better products. When you have more people attacking the problem in a co-creative environment where you’re treating everybody equally but understanding that each person comes to the table with a special superpower, then you’re going to get something greater than what one person can execute.

Co-creation really is a mindset more than anything else. It’s about saying, “You’re an engineer. You’re a product manager. You’re maybe an information architect. You’re a visual designer. You’re a writer. We’re on a team. You each have what I call a superpower. You probably each have kryptonite. The kryptonite, what you aren’t good at, probably that person is good at.” It’s about coming together and realizing that you’re kind of the Justice League. You each have these superpowers that can attack the problem the same way.

Which is why I like to also say that, “Design is not a noun, it’s a verb.” It’s a responsibility that is shared by the team. Creation is shared by the team, it’s not owned by the person who has the art degree. Everybody is born creative. How do you unlock that creativity in a co-creative, equal environment so that you can get the best out of that team.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Now we’ve talked about these six traits, how does this actually impact the culture of the company? Do you have some examples? Maybe Hot Studio or even here at Autodesk. How is the culture different?

Maria Giudice: I think it’s interesting. At Autodesk right now I’m kind of chartered with four different things. I’m chartered with building and strengthening and building a strong design culture throughout the company. Culture. The second one is building a customer-centric point of view, company-wide. The third is creating and connecting our products. We have 150 products. How are they connected to one another? How do we deliver continuous, connected, end-to-end experiences for our customers? Then ultimately how can we create better products for our creators who use our software?

You can’t talk about quality without talking about culture. It’s like a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. In order to actually do better products, you have to have a strong foundation. Strong foundation is about culture and community. There are things you can do.

The first is again, that mindset about realizing that you treat everybody equally. Doesn’t matter if you’re an intern or the CEO. We are all people in an environment together. We all have roles to play, but it’s not about hierarchy—it’s about getting shit done. So activating the base. There are about 350 designers at Autodesk around the world, so how do you connect them together? How do you get them out of the product design teams, office scrum teams, and kind of unionize and bring design together? There’s numbers in strength versus having these individual people on a team.

It’s about connecting them virtually. It’s about connecting them face to face. It’s creating mechanisms where we can share each other’s work and share points of view. It’s about empowering people to not just be doers but to become design leaders. When you get people who feel really proud and feel unionized and feel like they’re not alone and feel like they are treated equally, you’re going to get better work out of people.

So culture is the first thing that you have to do. If you find yourself not in a company that is going to be in a collaborative culture, I often say that, “Sometimes you just have to leave.” Going back, life is short. You want to be able to make the most of it with people that you love to work with.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Another thing that you mention is as you’re building this culture, you definitely want to embrace failure, but there’s acceptable failure and there’s unacceptable failure.

Maria Giudice: Unacceptable failure is making a decision that will bring the company down.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Good to know. What’s acceptable failure?

Maria Giudice: Acceptable failure is…here’s how you know when what’s good failure versus bad failure. I always say, “Before you make a decision, before you make any kind of decision you always ask, ‘What is the worse thing that can happen?’” If you could live with the worst thing that can happen, it’s probably an OK risk. If you cannot live with the risk, it’s like, “Well that decision, we can go bankrupt based on that decision.” Probably not a good risk to take.

At Hot Studio I lived through 15 years, I lived through three giant busts. So how do you make decisions to keep moving the company along, empowering people to do their best work, in an economy that was very unstable and volatile? It’s about deciding, being creative. The DEO will try stuff. It’s like, “How do we get through this big crisis? Let’s try this. Let’s try that.” There’s no playbook for it.

Then again ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” If the worst thing that could happen you can live through it, then take that risk. If you don’t take the risk, then you become stagnant.

Poornima Vijayashanker: For our viewers out there who are also creators—

Maria Giudice: Hi, viewers out there who are creators.

Poornima Vijayashanker: What would you recommend to them if today they are maybe sitting at their desk, they’re an engineer, they’re a designer, they’re a PM, they aspire to be this DEO, what’s one step that they can take on a daily basis to get them there?

Maria Giudice: One step. There’s lots of different steps.

Poornima Vijayashanker: The first step is to read the book.

Maria Giudice: Read the book.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s step number one.

Maria Giudice: Actually this book, it has a ton of tips. There’s workouts that tell you. One thing you could do is you can look at the attributes that make up a DEO and you can do a self-assessment. You can say, “Am I socially intelligent? Am I taking enough risks? Am I getting shit done on it?” You can start assessing where you are at and you can say, “I need to work better at being more people-centered.” There’s stuff in the book that gives you workouts. That’s one thing that you can do.

The other thing is, I would say at the end of the day the most important thing is be your authentic you. Really know who you are, what you can contribute in the world, and that you in fact equal to others. Part of being a DEO is realizing that it’s like The Wizard of Oz, you had it there all the time.

We’re all born creative. We all can be leaders. Nothing should hold you back. Depending on where you are in life, you can take a step to embody and lead versus just waiting for things to happen.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thank you so much, Maria.

Maria Giudice: Thank you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: This has been a pleasure. I’ve learned so much. I know our viewers also are definitely going to watch this episode and learn a lot from you. Thank you.

Maria Giudice: Thank you, everybody.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thanks to all you viewers for tuning in today. A special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for their help in producing this episode of Femgineer TV.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your teammates, your friends, and your boss. And subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode, where I’ll be hosting Lily Sarafan, the CEO of Home Care. Until then, I’ll catch you next time.

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