Become a Design Engineer
Are you interested in becoming a design engineer? Design engineers are the bridge between design and engineering teams, providing a crucial function in the development process. In this post, we'll explore the skills needed to become a design engineer, as well as how to gain experience and build advocacy in the field.
The Design Engineer
Firstly, let's talk about the role of a design engineer. Design engineers sit in the gap between design and engineering teams, providing a bridging function. They have varying levels of skill, but all share the ability to understand both design and engineering concepts. This allows them to communicate effectively with both teams and ensure that designs are feasible and can be implemented in a practical way.
While technical ability within development languages are essential, a design engineer should also posses strong problem-solving abilities and be able to think creatively. This is because design engineers are often tasked with finding innovative solutions to complex problems whilst also considering how to take something from design to delivery at pace.
Furthermore, a design engineer must also be able to work collaboratively with other professionals, such as product managers or the wider engineering teams to ensure that designs meet the needs of all stakeholders.
Developing the skills
Messing around with side projects is an excellent way to enhance your development or design skills, particularly if this is a new role you want to explore. Side projects allow you to experiment with new technologies, tools, and techniques that you may not have the opportunity to use in your day-to-day work. Plus, by working on side projects, you can also explore more creative ideas and develop your problem-solving skills.
One of the benefits of side projects is that they allow you to work on something that you are passionate about. This can be a great motivator and can help you stay engaged and interested in the work without burning out. Additionally, side projects can provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that may not be present in your regular work (hi all of those day-job projects that never shipped!)
Side projects also help you build a portfolio of work quickly, that you can showcase to potential employers or clients—especially those internal stakeholders you want to impress. If you look at my site, most of the things I share openly are side projects or experiments, rather than the day-job work itself.
In addition to creating side projects, there are other ways to gain experience as a design engineer. One way is to participate in hackathons. These events provide opportunities to work on challenging projects and collaborate with other designers and engineers. Additionally, attending industry conferences and workshops in the adjacent industry (so engineering if you’re more of a designer) can help you stay up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies in the field, as well as provide opportunities to network with other professionals. By taking advantage of these various opportunities, you can continue to build your skills and knowledge as a design engineer, and increase your chances of success in the field.
In addition to the benefits of saving time and money, building prototypes internally can also help to generate trust with stakeholders. When you have complete control over the development process, you can ensure that the final product meets the needs and expectations of everyone involved. This can lead to greater confidence in the product and the team behind it.
Equally, building functional prototypes can provide greater flexibility and customisation options. Stakeholders can experiment with different designs and features in semi-real time without worrying about the limitations imposed by larger teams with conflicting priorities. This can lead to more innovative and creative products that better meet the needs of customers.
It's worth noting that if you structure your prototypes well, they can even be taken forward into production code. This can save time and resources in the long run, as you won't need to start from scratch when moving from the prototype phase to the final product. In my experience, this approach has been highly effective in streamlining the development process and ensuring that the final product meets the needs of all stakeholders. In fact, the most recent project I shipped just this week happened to be a project that started as a prototype but, because I’d considered structuring the code well, could be finessed into shipping code in a matter of days.
Creating internal advocates is a crucial step in building trust within a team or organisation. As we discussed above, one effective way to do this is by using prototypes to sell your idea and skills. By creating a tangible representation of your ideas, you can demonstrate your capabilities and show others what you are capable of achieving. This can help to build credibility and trust with your colleagues.
Another way to build trust is by asking for a test project. This can be a small project that allows you to demonstrate your skills and show what you can bring to the table. By delivering a successful test project, you can build confidence in your abilities and show that you are capable of delivering results. If you can’t get access to one, then take an idea you’ve seen floating around and riff on it in your spare time. I’ve found that asking for forgiveness in these cases often yields greater outcomes. Again, I did this with an exciting project internally, and although my code didn’t ship, it sparked the beginning of committing to that approach (this is cryptic, I can’t really say anything meaningful without giving it away…)
Pushing for end-to-end involvement in a project can also help to build trust. By being involved in all aspects of a project, from design to frontend development, you can demonstrate your commitment to the project and show that you are willing to put in the effort to ensure its success. This can help to build trust with your colleagues and show that you are a valuable member of the team.
Here, the focus should be on trying to own the stack from PM ↠ Design ↠ Engineering if you can. By owning this, you have control over your destiny. Now our company is pretty unique in that anyone, in any role, can take on ownership of a project. But even if that’s not the case, pairing with a great PM to help justify why you can take on both responsibilities is key.
Finally, be in their channels. Whether that’s Slack, Teams, or some other product. Being visible and active in there, even if it’s just to ask questions, helps to show that you as a Designer—or Engineer—are interested in the other team’s day-to-day.
Building trust takes time and effort, but by using prototypes, getting test projects, and pushing for end-to-end involvement, you can demonstrate your skills and build credibility with your colleagues. This can help to create a strong foundation of trust that will enable you to take on more challenging projects and achieve greater success in your career.
Rounding it out
In reality, becoming a design engineer requires a combination of skill, prototyping, and advocacy. By following these steps, you’ll be on your way to a career in this burgeoning field and make a difference in the industry.
It's worth noting that the field of design engineering is very new and constantly evolving, and many companies don’t have these roles, see the value or have ever heard of it. As such, it's important to stay flexible and adaptable in your approach. This means being willing to learn new skills and techniques, and being open to new ideas and approaches. Equally, being comfortable having a “Product Designer” or “Frontend Engineer” role but effectively working as a Design Engineer is essential to getting buy in and further this essential but often missing role.