Daniel Castro, design leader at Exabeam on how you can find mentors in design

Each episode of our podcast, we talk to amazing product builders to learn about how they work, their processes, tools they use, and things that inspire them. It's an opportunity to get a sneak peek into how other builders and makers do their jobs.

In this episode, we interviewed Daniel Castro, Senior Director of Product Design at Exabeam, about how to find and learn from mentors to become a better designer.

[00:00:00] Irtefa: Hey everybody, today we have Daniel Castro from Exabeam on our podcast. He's Senior Director of Design at Exabeam, Daniel. Thank you so much for joining us on the pod.

Daniel: And thank you for inviting me.

Irtefa: Daniel, before we get started. What does a Senior Director of Design at Exabeam do?

Daniel: A little bit of everything. The main thing is ensuring that the focus is established and everybody is focused on the things the business needs or desires to achieve. Second is making sure that we're listening to our customers. Third is staying on top of the market, looking at what the competition does and what trends are happening. And how we can continue to improve as a team.

Irtefa: It sounds like part of your job is to keep an eye on what customers are using, what's happening in the industry, and leading a team of designers to accomplish those goals. And in past companies  I have worked at,  product managers play a role in talking to customers and figuring out priorities and strategy. How does that work in your team? Like working with PMs and designers?

Daniel: Staying very close to the product management team to the point where the [00:01:00] lines get blurred. For us, it feels like one team. It's just different roles. It's about empathy, internal empathy.

Irtefa: That is so interesting. From the early days at Exabeam, design was always a first-class citizen for the company. There was a lot of priority baked into building a design team and empowering them as the company continues to grow. Is that right?

Daniel: Yeah, that's correct. When we were starting to define the design principles, we interviewed one of our co-founders. He said when you think about cybersecurity and behavioral analytics and how the SOC operates, there's an opportunity for us to simplify that conversation. So he took design patterns from consumer space, and then you'd see other companies starting to copy the timeline. That's what caught my attention about this company. Having design as part of the core company DNA and just building on top of that. My responsibility is to keep the DNA alive and continue to build on top of it.

Irtefa: That is so interesting. It sounds like Exabeam was in the frontiers of the consumerization of enterprise companies where design is a first priority. You have [00:02:00] to think about empathy, about the people who are using the product day to day, treat your customers with respect and come from first principles when designing something for them. You mentioned something interesting: working closely with product teams and design is also leading the product strategy. The lines are blurred. Do you have any advice for our listeners on how product managers and engineers can work closely with design and accomplish goals effectively?

Daniel: That's one of the questions we constantly ask ourselves. The key is to start the trifecta conversation early like whenever we have an initiative, one of the first things we do is immediately set up work sessions, depending on the size of the initiative. It'll be once or twice a week. And it's just recurring like you lock the calendar that forces the conversation that forces the designer to start preparing for those sessions. And we include the engineers in those conversations. So we're facilitators of that process. Our mantra in the company is we have our specific professional roles in the space, but the output experience is a collective effort.

Irtefa: I love the [00:03:00] idea of that collective effort. The key takeaway here is designers, engineers, and product managers start on the same page and have recurring meetings to keep everyone up to date and build the product together as you discover new things. Today you're a Senior Director of Design, but you started as a UX engineer. How did that shift happen?

Daniel: I started working very young. My father taught me to hustle. I started seeing this dot com thing or this thing they called the internet. I was just blown away by it.

I had no tech background, but I just knew I needed to get my foot in. I looked at the job post, and I started reverse engineering all the job descriptions. Everything would say JavaScript, HTML, like whatever that is. I started learning and got my foot in the door. My first company was called Click2Send, and it was a startup company. Fast forward, since that day, up to this day, getting advice from other professionals, the mentor, just like we're doing right here. And that helped me grow.

And as I was already in my career, I decided to go to school. I went to the academy of art. And then those two worlds started blending. The aesthetic and the engineer started coming together before the discipline was called UX. [00:04:00] Everyone was already bubbling up this discussion about the experience.And sure enough, my attention started shifting to that because I was already a front-end developer, so it came natural for me. I've always been into art. So all these worlds just collided together, and I started understanding design information architecture, and I gravitated towards information architecture and other sub-disciplines of UX. And then, from there, I just found the right opportunity and started shifting internally. And then, I did the official shift.

Irtefa: That's so cool. I love the idea of reverse engineering job posts to learn the skills you need to land that job.You talked about how you found the internet and didn't even know what to learn. How old were you when you started discovering this completely new place?

Daniel: I was around 24.

Irtefa: You were going through these job posts, learning what to learn and finding mentors, right?

Daniel: Yes.

Irtefa: Those are two important things you mentioned about your journey and eventually landed you a start as a front-end engineer. Then your two worlds of being passionate about art, design, and engineering collided. You became the UX designer at Verizon.  Is that right?

[00:05:00] Daniel: Yes, that's correct. I went in as an information architect, always pivoting, using my strength as an entry point for different things. That's extremely helpful.

Irtefa: What advice do you have for people trying to find a mentor in the design space?

Daniel: In the beginning, I was shocked at how many people would respond. Be aggressive, be comfortable with that. One of the things I enjoy so much about tech, in general, the community is very giving. For example, I emailed Jesse James Garret; he wrote a book in the early days on UX. In fact, I wrote a blog about it because I snapshot the email. His response was concise, but that was a light bulb for me. It was the fact that he responded.

People don't understand that the mentor is so strong. I still use mentors because I'm still learning, I'm still trying to understand how you speak to executives. How does a business think about design? I want to hear that side. So I'm constantly listening to different podcasts.  A couple of years back, I listened to a podcast about measuring UX, and it caught my attention. So I stalked them and found them on LinkedIn. I'm like, Hey, I listened to your podcast; it caught my [00:06:00] attention; I just had one or two questions; if you had 30 minutes, it would mean the world to me something like that. And they replied yeah, sure, anytime just schedule them. I scheduled, and I asked the questions, and since then, they have become a mentor to me. They'll be like, anytime you need help.

When I was trying to do another jump, I presented my deck, and they made corrections. They were like, no, don't say that, say this. To this day, I still use the mentor. The mentor is extremely powerful.

Irtefa: Daniel, so many good golden nuggets in that answer. I'll go one by one. First of all, be aggressive at reaching out to other people, but you do something interesting here where there's some context for all the cases you talked about. You're not just reaching out to people. You are doing cold emails, but it's with context. With the first one, you read their book, so you had very specific questions. The other people, you listened to their podcast, and then you reached out to those people. That's incredible. That's the difference between a blank, cold email with I need your help, versus something that people will respond to.

And the third thing was constantly learning. You have to learn as your roles change, and then you can leverage your mentors and ask them for their help. People are generally kind. They want to help other people. It's incredible [00:07:00] how you're growing in your career.  You have multiple mentors to ask questions to as you continue to grow as a designer and a design leader. It's incredible.

Daniel: I recently talked to someone starting their UX career. And my point to them was, I get it like, you have a little bit of imposter syndrome. I still have imposter syndrome myself. I feel that sometimes. We're all trying to learn. So it's just the next level, right? So you're constantly trying to improve, and if you're guessing yourself, that's good. That's a good sign. It means you want to continue to improve, and you care.

Anybody you see as senior looks like they know what they're doing, but the reality is that, yeah, of course, we know what we're doing on our level, but we are also still learning just like anybody else.

Irtefa: I love that, how that feeling is completely normal.  It's a signal to your brain that, hey, you are learning, and you have to continue to learn. I love it. Who are your favorite designers?

Daniel: Ah, that's a good question. So I'm a big fan of John Maeda. I love the way he thinks. He has a very broad view of design and is integrated into the engineering conversation. His books are great. I'm a big fan of [00:08:00] his.

I also like what I'm seeing from Pablo Stanley. He's fun, engaging the community in all the great work he does, his presentation skills, and all that.

In the industry, of course, De Rams if you hear his interviews and the way he thinks, I really enjoy that. He's constantly way out there pushing the limits. Other designers, I don't know their names, but the reality is that I love these products, and whoever the designer is, I'm a fan of whatever they're doing.

Irtefa: I love it. We're going to share those links in the show notes where you can follow these designers and their work. What are some of your favorite YouTube channels or podcasts that you watch or listen to?

Daniel: I follow podcasts that get posted on Twitter or something like that. Then I just follow up on that.  I don't have the time to listen to podcasts as much as I want to. That's the reality and the pain that I have. I'm in meetings all day. So I'm Googling and searching on Medium. That's what I'm following as much as possible.  

Irtefa: Yep. Get it. Do you have any specific books that transformed you as a designer or a design leader?

Daniel: Yes. And interestingly enough, these books aren't necessarily written by designers. Sense-making [00:09:00] is one of my favorite books. It's by Christian Madsbjerg. It's a fantastic book. He talks down a little bit about design thinking. But I get it. I  kind of agree with some of the points he makes. I don't want to spoil it. It's a fantastic book for designers.

John Madea The Laws of Simplicity. I love that book. It's easy to read.

And then another one that I reference a lot to designers is a book called The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene. Because what we do is so much psychology. We focus so much on the external. But the internal world, all of a sudden, becomes like this massive frustration that nobody gets it. If you look at the internal human nature side, it becomes easier for you to empathize, understand how, and connect with people. Like when I reach out to people, I hit them with what they're talking about, not with what I want to know. So my interest is in you. These types of things are very important when you're to collaborate because UX is in the middle of it. And we're the bottleneck between PM to engineering. It requires a lot of understanding of human nature.

And then, of course, all the biggies Steve Krug with Don't Make Me Think, Julie O. The Making of a Manager, all of these books have [00:10:00] helped me out.

[00:10:00] Irtefa: Lot of great gems. I love The Laws of Human Nature. And it's so crucial to understand how people think as a designer, a must-read for designers.

Daniel, what advice do you have for up-and-coming designers? Anything specific for people who are just getting started with design or trying to land roles in design?

Daniel: Yes, the mentor, that's number one, because a mentor will guide you to the right things to do. The important thing about the mentor is a focus, especially when starting your career. You could get frustrated because you're not moving. And a lot of times, it's just a lack of focus. You're spending a lot of time on things that aren't going to make an impact. The mentor should say, don't worry about that; this is the thing that matters the most.

The second thing is a more pragmatic way. We run the double diamond, which is the discovery delivery design process.  If you're not careful, the conversation becomes too much of a pixel conversation. One trick I like is using a lean UX canvas. It's a great way to get yourself to collaborate with the PM, and it leads you into research. It accelerates the process from the business to the persona solution. PMs love that it ends with what are we going to do and that it's [00:11:00] focused on the hypothesis. The lean UX canvas is a great way to move fast and connect all those parts. That's probably in an enterprise.It's also about caring about the industry. It's tough for a designer who is in an enterprise. That's why I mentioned Sense-Making because Sense-Making is about that. You need to sink your teeth into this complex world and try to understand as best as you can.

Irtefa: I love it. And it ties back to why designers or design leaders at Exabeam also spend time on strategy and understanding the business and the industry. It's very core to that DNA. The big takeaway is spending a lot of time in discovery, sinking your teeth into the problem, the industry, and the customers you're solving problems for. Also, use a lean UX canvas to put all those things you learned in a framework understood by product managers and everyone else working with you on the team.

Daniel: Exactly. And one of the things that I notice about recent graduates when I see PMs come out, they come out with their mini CEO; I'm a leader, right?

Irtefa: Yeah.

Daniel: Designers don't come out with that attitude. The designer needs to come out like I'm here to lead. Design is still so craft oriented. It [00:12:00] needs to be a little more leadership, a holistic view so that when you come out of school, you're like, I have the pressure of leading the experience of this product. Therefore, I need to understand all the other parts that intersect with what I'm doing. Then the craft is a way to make it possible, but it's the leadership that matters.And  the reason why I say that because it shifts because you can't lead. If you don't know the business, or understand the space, you're  just focusing on your discipline.

And so every time you do presentations, it's not about you talking design. Recently one executive gave me the key question, why should I care? Always ask yourself that. You're constantly talking to executives or to stakeholders. They're thinking business about all the parts that we somewhat shut off. So the important thing is to start right from the get-go; this is why you should care because the experience is connected to the business.

Irtefa: So interesting like that executive asking, so what is [00:13:00] such an important way to think about things. Even when talking about what you did, it's important to keep reminding people that this is why what you're doing is important.

Daniel, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom today on our pod. It was awesome having you here, and I loved chatting with you.

Daniel:  Thanks for inviting me. Yeah, it was a great chat. I love talking shop anytime.

Irtefa: Thank you so much.

Here are some links to the things discussed in the podcast.