inside the mind of design leaders - featuring Koji Pereira, Head of Design at Lyft Business


Kristie sits down with Design Leaders across the industry to get their insight into their successes, challenges and advice. This week, Kristie speaks to Koji Pereira, Head of Design at Lyft Business

Kristie Craft: I've been really excited to interview you, so thank you for being part of it. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into design?

Koji: Graphic Design was where I started. Growing up, I really liked music and when I was 16, I started a band. For me, creating posters for bands was my initial connection with Design. Then, I moved from the physical world to the internet by creating websites for bands and for my own band, too.

Few years later, I joined a startup that had this very interesting product. It was this very primitive version of Grubhub, or Uber Eats. We have a server connected to the internet, with a website. So people would go to this website, order a pizza, and then we had the server connected to a fax machine, we would send the fax to the pizza place, they would then deliver the pizza and get the money in cash. So, this was early 2000. That was the first product that I worked on. After that, we worked on other products, we had an SMS channel for daily horoscopes, a lot of crazy stuff back then!

Then I joined Google because of my product experience to work on Orkut, which was the biggest social network that Google had back then - it was the biggest social network in Brazil and in India. That was awesome, I was working on something that everyone I knew and loved, and everybody else used every day. It was the first contact that many people had with the internet in Brazil, and many parts of the world.

I continued to be at Google for close to 10 years, I was working with Google in Brazil to start and at that time, I was working on Google+. Most of my team were already based in San Francisco, my manager and all the designers that I worked on with, so I decided to move to San Francisco.

Kristie Craft: It's always a hard decision, but I'm sure you will have an incredible life in San Fran now. So now, what is your current role?

Koji: So right now, I am the Head of Design for Lyft Business. Lyft Business functions like a startup inside Lyft. We create products and services that allow companies and organizations to provide rides for their employees, collaborators, clients, so on and so forth. 

We work with both the admin side, who create these programs, but also the client side, the people who get the rides and how it manifests on the app itself. Right now, we have a team of 6 designers, 3 researchers, and 1 UX writer and we're growing very fast.

Kristie Craft: Just to step back, your transition from an IC to a Manager, what were some of the challenges you faced?  

Koji: Okay, let me just take one step back to talk about the leadership role, because I see the leadership role in parallels. One is the IC leadership, and the other one is a management leadership.

For me it was a very conscious choice that I wanted to follow the management leadership ladder. I was a teacher back in Brazil and I used to teach interaction design. I am very passionate about mentorship and helping people grow.

I also wanted to reuse some of my skills that I learned over the years at Google to facilitate conversations between xfn teams. Google is very well known for the fact that there is internal competition, so internal teams are sometimes competing against each other and it is very important to navigate between teams to align on shared goals. At the same time, you make your point and defend your team. I think that was something that I felt strongly about that I needed to continue to reuse the skills moving forward.

Then there’s the IC leadership role. It's a relatively new pathway, if you think about it, most tech companies right now try to have it. We have it at Lyft meaning you can grow up to the same level as a Director as an IC, by just working in your craft of design, and not necessarily managing someone.

Of course, craft also must grow in the skill of communication, right? How do you communicate your design? How do you move your team towards a specific vision?

Both paths are possible. I think both are very interesting ways to practice leadership. I personally chose the management ladder, because it's something that really speaks to my heart, and it's something that I'm very excited about.

Kristie Craft: Exactly, well said! It’s something that a lot of IC designers have been struggling with, that pull between “Yes, I'm Senior, but I don't want to manage. So how do I stay senior and grow in my career without having to just be stuck in the same position”?

Koji: What I would say is, try to look for companies who keep career pathways very clear. Also look for examples in the industry and talk with those examples.

If you look for Principal Designers up to Director level, try to connect with those people and talk with them to understand what they do in daily life. Then look up for companies who support that type of role.

What I would try to avoid is trying to force yourself into something that you do not feel is for you, like management, it's basically having meetings all the time; it is about doing a lot of things that are not necessarily Design. There is a big aspect of it, which is basically human interaction, communication, and facilitation. Those things are not something that all designers need to do or love to do.

I think a lot of designers get to the top of their career where they feel like, "Oh, I'm in a plateau, there's nothing about design that can learn anymore, maybe I should learn something else." But some people will be like, "I know this, but I want to continue to work on my craft", because working on your craft is a constant iteration, you can continue to do it. It's not about knowing more; it's about practicing more. It's totally fine to be a Senior Designer for a longer time and continue to work in your craft. I think in our time today, people move very fast in their careers, and that sometimes can be daunting. 

​Kristie Craft: Was there anything that you struggled with in the transition? Or was it quite an easy transition for you to become a manager because of your history?

Koji: I don't think it was easy.

I think I committed a lot of mistakes by trying to force a situation. I was really trying to be a manager and missing the point of the context and process of the transition.

You need to be thoughtful and you need to understand if you are in the right place. I remember, for instance, when I worked with my manager back at Google for a while, she said to me, "I want you to be a manager". She was the one who started the conversation. After some months of conversation, I was like "Okay, I think i'm ready" But then the fact is, when you’re an IC in a team, and then in the same team you’re assigned to be a manager, it becomes to be a very hard situation.

Now overnight, your colleagues respond to you. That creates friction that can sometimes be disruptive to the team dynamic. I think it took me a lot to understand that and thinking about turning the page and finding another team. There is a point where you need to understand where you are in the cycle. It's like a startup cycle, you get excited, you have an idea, then you have to pivot, something happens and then maybe you have a second pivot, with teams is the same thing. You have a forming process, you get excited and you form a team. Then you start to learn how to work together and there's a lot of friction, and then you start to deliver things in a flow. 

Sometimes you get to a place where people find themselves with different purposes and directions, and then the team dissolves, right? But it's totally fine. You don't have to have a team forever and I think it took me a lot to think about that, because I am very loyal.

I stick around for a very long time, but then I think it's very important to think maybe the cycle is done, it's not that it didn't work, It's just that it comes to an end and that's fine. Now we'll move on and see what happens next.

When you are in a transition to management, you have to let go, not only of the fact that you don't have control anymore on the design, but also let go of the team if that team is not the best fit for you anymore.

Kristie Craft: I think it’s a common feeling between designers that become managers, realizing that you have to be hands off to allow people to grow and like you said, it's especially hard to transition from IC to a manager in the same team because design was your responsibility for a long time and your team still see you as a pier.

Throughout your design career, do you have a design philosophy that you live by?

Koji: I wouldn’t say design philosophy, but my philosophy is collaboration, I think that's the most important thing.

I think collaboration is one word that is used a lot, but to me, it tells me a lot about other things around it. For instance, to collaborate, you need to build trust. Building trust is probably the first stage and second, you need to really build empathy with your teammates. If you don't have that you can't collaborate, right?

An engineer will not collaborate the same way that a PM will collaborate, or a Designer will collaborate with you. So really trying to understand that people have different ways of thinking, working, and building that is part of the collaboration.

I think the last part is that collaboration opens the design process. Historically, Graphic Design was very different from what we have today. It was way more linear. Now, there are more iterations and there are so many things happening at the same time.

How do we open the design process in a way that is not just the outcome, right? Designers go to a cave, work on the design, and then show up with the result. Which sometimes happened in the past with graphic design, especially in the 90’s. Right now, it needs to be way more dynamic. 

I think tools like Figma, where anybody can go there and see what you're working on, this gets to a next level. In the past collaboration in design might be distorted because in the past, the collaboration was not a very strong aspect of design, but with design thinking and design sprintschanged that in the 2000’s.

If I don't have collaboration, I really feel there is something very important lacking in the design process.

Kristie Craft: It's definitely true. Globally, how we live our lives now is more connected, in everything that we do.

Is there anything that is happening now within either design or the current situation that's really got you excited about the future of design?

Koji: We are facing a lot of changes and a lot of issues, the environment, COVID and politically with racial justice, and to me, the designer needs to be connected with everything that is happening in the world somehow. So I'm very excited in some ways, because I feel design can really play a big role here.

What I think is going to be crucial about the future of design, is to really take diversity and inclusion very seriously, because if we do it in a way that just feels like a slogan that we need, or a box that we need to check, I don't think we'll get anywhere close to fix the problems that I just mentioned.

If we really take that seriously, and have designers with very diverse backgrounds, even if they're working in something not related at all with these problems, they've got to find some way to include something that will make a change or will make a difference within their products. So, I'm very excited about how design can be a voice and be a way to connect these problems and serve them.  

Kristie Craft: Exactly, making it just a tick in the box on prolongs change.

I’ve been following your Instagram live series which have been amazing, and a breath of fresh air – for you, are there any blogs, books, podcasts that you listen to that really help you, either in your current role or as a designer today?

Koji: For books, I really liked the 21 lessons For The 21st Century. This book is amazing, because it just paints a lot of questions or a lot of issues that we're facing today in the 21st century.

The author, Yuval Noah Harari, is a historian, he talks about our century, how we got here and what the biggest challenges are. To me, it is interesting to think how do we as designers, design in a world with these big challenges? Say nationalism, religion, immigration, artificial intelligence, or nature of truth. 

Another book that I liked a lot was The Art Of Not Giving a F*ck. The title was kind of dumb, but I really like the book itself. A lot of things that are discussed there are very, very connected to the anxieties that we have today in our lives. Being young workers in the tech industry, it's a common topic how we think about self-image, how much pressure we put on ourselves. It's great in a way that it really saves you from all of this craziness that we are today and gives a lot of crowd clarity to think about. The things that are really essential in life. Besides that the book is based on Buddhist learnings, so it's very interesting, you'll never expect that with this title. 

Before I joined Lyft, I also read this book called The First 90 days, and that book is very useful anytime you have a big change in your life and you're joining a new team, for instance, or joining a new company. It gives you a very simple framework. Within 90 days, how can you build trust and deliver impact with low hanging fruit. It’s a great book about starting something new in your career. 

Another one is Pivot from Jenny Blake, which is another book about life-changing events. It doesn't give you a framework, but it gives you a lot of learnings in terms of when to identify the time to make a change, and how to make a change in a way that you feel comfortable in, and that you’re doing it in a thoughtful way.

In terms of podcasts, YouTube channels and blogs… I basically follow the Design Collective, I think they have great posts about designing generally.

For podcasts, I love 99% Invisible. I was actually listening to some podcasts from James guy, he also has a podcast about design leadership, which was very cool to hear.

Other than that, I think the TV series that I really like is Deaf U. It's about People who are deaf, it's a reality show that follows in very mundane situations, like dating, they talk about life choices, and it's amazing because the whole series is in silence. You don't hear anyone speaking and they're just using sign language. It’s really interesting and you have to pay attention because it talks about accessibility, which is something that I'm very interested about.​

Kristie Craft: Yeah, I’m actually really into Netflix at the moment, just because they are bringing out some really interesting documentaries at the moment.

Thanks so much for your taking the time to do this interview. I’m really excited about sharing this with the world and what you’ve done with Cells and Pixels is awesome – so congrats. Looking forward to the series continuing in the new year.

Koji: Thank you so much. Thanks for your work. And thanks for inviting me and I am very excited to see the result later. Thanks for the work you're doing for the community. I think this is very important, because, you know, there is this gap between what companies want versus what the actual experience of designers have in school. So all this is small gestures, like what you're doing right now really helps to create more clarity and help designers to find their own path. So I really appreciate that!