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BuzzFeed’s Cap Watkins reflects on his first year as vice president of design

After stints at Amazon and Etsy, Cap Watkins joined BuzzFeed last year to fill the newly-created role of vice president of design, taking over responsbilities that were once held by  the media company's first-ever designer and second employee Chris Johanesen.

The Drum recently caught up with Watkins to chat about his first year on the job at BuzzFeed, his plans for 2016, and how his experiences in past roles at companies like Amazon have helped prepare for him the part-management, part-design leadership position he holds today.

Watkins said his first year at BuzzFeed has been both exciting and educational for him, describing it as an “adventure in learning about how design, tech and editorial work together.”

“My typical week is very atypical and nothing ever really repeats,” he said. “My responsibilities aren’t just to design. At this level, it’s a lot about being flexible and thinking holistically about everyone and everything.”

Before joining Buzzfeed, Watkins served as a design manager at Etsy, the place where he says he initially learned how to manage people. Before that, he was a UX designer at Amazon.

“Amazon was the first place where I worked with other designers,” he said. “I’d always been at start-ups before that and I’d been the lone designer. And so at Amazon, I got kind of a crash course in deep user experience thinking from designers who were way, way smarter than me and way, way better at their jobs than me.”

Now at BuzzFeed, Watkins is combining his management skills with his design chops to help the burgeoning media company organize and inject some more rigor into its growing team of designers.

Before Watkins came on board, BuzzFeed's vice president of product Chris Johanesen - the company's second employee and first designer - was overseeing design.

Since joining, Watkins has grown BuzzFeed’s design team to roughly 18 people and has been busy implementing processes – like critique systems and professional development opportunities - to help his designers do their best work possible.

He has particularly concentrated on providing designers with clearly-defined expectations along with how to meet them as well as creating transparency amongst the team by finding ways to consistently and openly share work.

Looking ahead, Watkins said 2016 will be about re-evaluating the decisions he has made over the past year to make sure they are in fact helping the team move forward and become more productive. He noted that he and some of BuzzFeed’s design managers and senior designers recently had an offsite meeting where they went through a “re-anchoring exercise” to evaluate the “anchors” he has implemented thus far - like the critique systems and transparency processes - which gave them a chance to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t.

“I think in 2015, a lot of what I did was about setting up processes and kind of getting organized. It was hard to executive at a high level from a design perspective because we just weren’t set up to do it,” he said. “We had to move the pieces into place and get everybody talking the right way and communicating really well. I feel like this is the year we execute. We learned a lot over the last year and I would bet anybody on the team would tell you that it just feels like a completely different company even that it did a year ago.”

Watkins also noted that he’s spent a lot of time working with other departments at BuzzFeed, like engineering and HR, to leverage their capabilities that can in turn have a positive impact on design.

For example, he said he works with BuzzFeed’s vice presidents of engineering to help them recruit engineers while they in turn help him get designers into code.

Even with the progress he’s made so far overseeing design at BuzzFeed, Watkins said he still takes time to study and read about different management styles so he can continue to improve how his team operates.

“I’ve been reading a lot of management books, not because I feel like I have to but because I just really am enjoying it a lot,” he said. “I feel like companies are these organisms that all have their own way of working. I find it really fascinating to think about what BuzzFeed is like as an organism, and what are its core principles, and what is unchangeable and how can we leverage those things,” he said.

Watkins is speaking at the ‘Design It, Build It’ conference in Edinburgh next month. 

Featured by The Drum