15 min read

Pallet People: David Hoang

A conversation with David about his career, Webflow, and the no-code space.

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Welcome to the free weekly edition of our newsletter.  The Pallet Post features conversations with awesomely insightful professionals, jobs from companies they recommend, and some of our own takeaways and updates from building a startup.

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Now! Onto the regularly scheduled program...

Pallet People is a deep dive into experiences: failures, successes, and everything in-between, of founders, directors, and high-level professionals.  At the top and bottom of each segment you'll see a guest-curated list of companies you can follow to track jobs from!

Today's guest is David Hoang, Director of Design @ Webflow, newsletter writer, and UX educator @ General Assembly.


The TL:DR

David's Journey

It started when I joined a company in 2009 called Exact Target, which was an email marketing platform.  I was a pretty early employee there and it eventually got acquired by Salesforce.  That was definitely my first exposure.  Because at first, I was more project-oriented.  But when I joined Exact Target, it taught me how to apply the skills of interface design with building an actual product and affecting a company.

Working in a Large Design Team

Some things are longer and some are shorter.  The most meta thing about working at Webflow is that we're designing design tools for designers to design.  So the system that we're creating, the engine that allows people to build, needs to be very thought out.  Adding a div block in Webflow, using block elements, deciding between flexbox or grid, these things need to be entirely thought out and systematized.  If we're too rigid about the building experience, we're going to hinder the user experience.  Because it goes beyond design, and technology, this is human behavior.

Thoughts on No-Code

If you have any sort of business where service delivery is a part of it, that's where no-code is really powerful.  You can build dashboards with Airtable and Zapier with such little time and effort compared to coding these things yourself.  Ultimately it just makes it easier to acquire customers, and that's a startup's main job.  The faster you can get to the customers, the faster you win, and code is great, but code takes time.

David's List

David has created a list of no-code and design-oriented companies worthy of keeping your eye on.  Check it out for a curated feed and click the follow button to stay up-to-date on their jobs!

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Breaking Into Tech


Early in my career, I was never like, I want to be a director of design at X company, it just happened. ¬†All too often, we think about our careers as this rigid and monolithic thing ‚ÄĒ "here's all the things I want to achieve in the next twenty years", but really it's more agile, and dynamic.

That being said, maybe I can start from the beginning.  I studied drawing and painting in undergrad and initially I was going to pursue a master's in art, because I wanted to teach.  Turns out, grad school is super super expensive so instead I took a year off.  This is going to reveal how old I am, but this is around the same time the first version of IOS came out.  And that was huge.  It was this new form factor that nobody knew how to design for yet, and it really equalized the playing field for everybody.  I was already doing some web design in photoshop so I thought to myself - "Hey, why don't I experiment with this and play around with it".  Just throwing myself in.  I ended up doing a lot of freelance and contract jobs, and that was in the age of the skeuomorphic, IOS design where everything looked like corinthian leather.

So you joined the design world when digital products were still in diapers basically?

Yeah, so photoshop was the in for me. ¬†I knew it really well. ¬†Sketch wasn't even a thing back then, and Figma was super far away. ¬†From there it was just about picking up whatever skills different jobs were asking of me. ¬†Being good at learning is a huge plus, even today, I continue to be such a curious person. ¬†And continue to ask myself, "how do I skill build". ¬†So many things were emerging at that time. ¬†It was like today's version of the NFT, crypto, AR space, where opportunities are somewhat equalized. ¬†People come in by the droves and explore different things. So that's how I got my start ‚ÄĒ taking my art background and doing UI work. ¬†I didn't even know what UX was. ¬†I wasn't really into startups either.

So when you talk about skill-building, is that a possible route for people already in jobs? Can you "skill-build" on the side? Or is it something that you need to put all your effort into in order to be competent for a hypothetical job?

When you think about skill building, you have to know what you'e learning model is.  Because it varies from person to person.  There's some people who need to take a 10 week course, leave their job, and completely immerse themselves.  The one thing I think my art degree helped me with is learning how to learn.  Being able to tinker and play around with different things.  And, maybe even more important, connecting with people who have expertise.  My first exposure to programming was a conceptual art class, which, to this day, I had know idea what was going on. But it was looking at this new form of media to create art, and I saw people using flash, HTML, and CSS to build interactive art.  And it widened my scope.

What is your learning model?

I'm quite autodidactic, pretty autonomous in how I like to learn and want to try things. I like to get to the point of failure and then go and try and connect with people who can get me over the hump.  I'm the type of person that if I play a video game, I don't read the manual.

From doing UI work here and there, what was the nudge that really got you into tech specifically? You have "startup advisor" on your personal website, so it's definitely something you're passionate about now.

It started when I joined a company in 2009 called Exact Target, which was an email marketing platform.  I was a pretty early employee there and it eventually got acquired by Salesforce.  That was definitely my first exposure.  Because at first, I was more project-oriented.  But when I joined Exact Target, it taught me how to apply the skills of interface design with building an actual product and affecting a company.

Was it a tangible decision to join a fast-growing company? I'm assuming that the acquisition meant Exact Target kinda killed it.

You know it's so funny to me, I feel like throughout my career, I just end up in companies that are in a hyper growth trajectory.  Without even seeking it out, but Exact Target was definitely growing when I joined.  But that wasn't a part of my decision.  It was moreso, "Hey this company is looking for someone who can code and build emails" So I was like, "Why not".  This is before Crunchbase and looking at investors all the time, I didn't even really know what a startup was back then.  If I could sum up my career I would really say that I stumbled into pretty much everything I did.

What came after Exact Target?

I ended up leaving‚ÄĒeven though I really loved the company and the people, I wanted to stretch myself a little bit more. ¬†I wanted to run some things myself, and explore a bit more technology wise. ¬†I started my own company, a consultancy. One of my best friends and I ran it for five years. ¬†That was my non-traditional path to management. ¬†And we found a lot of success building up our client base‚ÄĒ to the point where we ended up hiring subcontractors. ¬†And it was one of those things where I looked at myself after and thought, "ok, now I know how to manage people". ¬†Right after that, I was the first head of product design at One Medical. ¬†I was there four about four years. ¬†Really loved my time in health-tech. ¬†And I was super privileged when I left, to be able to just take some time for myself. ¬†Because at that point I was fully situated but I wanted to know ‚ÄĒ "What else am I passionate about?"

Time At Webflow & Working With Large Teams


At first, Webflow wasn't on my radar at all.  I had heard about it vaguely, but I wasn't a user until a friend of mine mentioned the opportunity.  She thought I'd be a good fit because of my mix of programming and design, and just using visual programming tools.  And when I first looked at I thought it was great.  It wasn't just for marketing sites, this was a tool that was genuinely enabling people to create and build on the web without knowing how to code.  The thing that stuck out to me is how high impact that would be.  I ended up going into the interview loop and was fortunate enough to get extended an offer.  So I've been there for the last year and a half now.

When you joined, how big was the design team?

I think it was about 20 people when I first walked in.  Really split into two main sectors, brand design and product design.

Just out of curiosity, how big is it now?

It's almost 30 now, so we've grown a bit.  We've had some people come and go, so its fluctuated a bit.

I'm interested in the number because I'm really trying to figure out how design teams operate at the level of having 20+ people on the team.  How do you organize those forces?

I'm smiling because the ultimate answer is that it's very hard.  It's really difficult to align teams, especially in design where consistency and continuity is so important across the entire user experience.  But I would say my philosophy is you want to focus energy where we can make the biggest impact.  We identify areas of opportunity, whether it's product or marketing, and really put our designers there. It's the kind of thing where, if you can imagine 30 designers on one Figma file, how chaotic that would be right? So we group people into areas where we believe they can make the biggest customer and business impact.  And following that strategy we really look for generalist designers.  I don't personally believe in unicorns, I don't think everyone can be an amazing visual designer, researcher, and prototyper.  However, I do think you can find people who are good at a couple things and have enough general skill to carry the work through.  So if I'm a designer that struggles somewhat with visual design, I know I have the resources on the team to help my project and I can use them to help make my decisions.  You don't need to know everything, but you must know how to leverage everything, and use the system to your advantage.

On a similar note, what does the decision-making process look like? As someone who does some design work, there's some ego involved, there's a lot of opinions, so as the director are you the person who has the ultimate authority?

It's really myself and Sergie who's our chief experience officer.  He's my manager and the founding designer at Webflow, which is pretty great, because I get to report to a designer.  And he literally built the thing, so there's so much knowledge and insight there.  Together, we want to give the right direction, but ultimately we want to equip people to be able to autonomously make the best call possible.  Like we strive for input, not approval.  We want to get to a point where providing input guidance is most effective and the team at large has a foundational understanding of the design direction.  We have a co-founder who really sweats the details and who can blame him? He's been working on this for eight some years, and from his perspective you want to see it thrive.  Managing those tensions is really important and I think one way we've tackled that is having this collective understanding where, everyone's kind of looking out for the entire experience versus being like "Oh, I work in this one feature area and that's all I care about".

Talking about opportunity knowledge, something that I've found difficult is collecting quality data to make design decisions.  How do you balance qualitative vs quantitative? I feel like there's two warring factions on this front of, "the data says all versus the people don't know what they want" So generally, how much of a data-driven design team is Webflow?

Right, yeah it's like the Amazon versus Apple debate.  I think especially for Webflow, being that it is a design tool, you need conviction and intuition but you want data to guide and hold you accountable.  You want to come in with a hypothesis that's backed by intuition and data.  A harmony between the two is really important.  A lot of the work were doing right now is prototyping to figure out where the product experience needs to go.  This specific task is backed on a lot of intuition, it's knowledge from the founders, who've been thinking about this problem space for almost a decade.  I know it's a bit of a cop out answer, but you really do need a mix of both.  But it's the kind of thing where we like to start with intuition and then build a strategy taking both qualitative and quantitative data to help prove that strategy.

It's good to know that an intuition-first model exists within larger teams.  So what's the collaborative environment, not just within the design team, but between design and product or design and engineering?

Yeah collaboration is super tough, especially remote. ¬†We're trying to figure out how to build a more demo-based culture, where ideas are shown rather than discussed. ¬†If you're willing to solve a problem, show us your solution. ¬†And we suffer the same challenges as everyone else‚ÄĒ wondering whether meetings are done efficiently, and trying to create spaces for genuine idea-sharing. ¬†We actually had a design review today where the head of ENG and the head of product were in the room. ¬†It's super important that leadership is apart of the feedback loop. ¬†But for me, ideally, there should be no divisions between product, engineering, and design. ¬†It should all be one squad that kind of handles everything together. ¬†I know some people get sensitive about this, but I truly don't care if product manager's design, or engineers give serious design input.

Right, but how do you establish owners of a specific initiative if everybody's on the same team? Who would drive decisions?

Really by doing.  Again, if you have an idea, go build a proof of concept or start making momentum around it and prove that that's the area we need to go.  I don't think it's as strict as "Our VP needs to approve it", so it's this sort of system where the best ideas win.  Not ideas from certain people or ideas from certain teams.  And on top of that, the customer should also be driving some decisions. We need to be listening to them more than any one person on the team.

Do you have tips on how a company (or any group really) can effectively create this idea arena? How do you transcend rigid structures that may not allow for the best idea to win?

You have to set up a psychologically safe space where people feel like they can bring their ideas without being told they aren't going to work.  Or questioned on the validity of the idea. Thats super important, because a lot of the time people feel discouraged to share anything that isn't directly mentioned in the roadmap. This is going to sound contradictory, but you need to have flexibility with rigor. You need to have the flexibility to allow the idea to shape up and take form, while having the rigor to actually productionize it.  You need to have a rigorous response to the idea, either taking action or deciding against it.  And to put in terms of the bigger picture, it all falls down to culture.  Do you have a culture where anyone on the org chart feels like they can share ideas and be taken seriously.  `

How long does it take your team to ship features?

Some things are longer and some are shorter.  The most meta thing about working at Webflow is that we're designing design tools for designers to design.  So the system that we're creating, the engine that allows people to build, needs to be very thought out.  Adding a div block in Webflow, using block elements, deciding between flexbox or grid, these things need to be entirely thought out and systematized.  If we're too rigid about the building experience, we're going to hinder the user experience.  Because it goes beyond design, and technology, this is human behavior.  We need to pay attention to how people learn and capitalize on that.  But something that went really quickly, on the other end of the spectrum, was our color contrast checker and accessibility tools.  And our blind mode.  That's a feature I really appreciated because of my own color blindness.  And it was something where the team basically said, "Everyone needs to better at accessibility, including us" It didn't go through exec review, it just went right through us.  We just knew what was important, and I don't even think our customers explicitly asked.  So two sides: one where we need to think out all the permutations and implications of a system and another where we just wanted to value add as quick as possible.

Thoughts on The No-Code Space


Are no-code tools just as powerful as any other? There's somewhat of a stigma around no-code in that it doesn't offer all the same capabilities.

I think no-code offers a different way to solve a problem.  I've heard developers who love Webflow because they can get a project up in a slice of the time it would normally take them.  By the time it's finished, they would still be trying to figure out what CSS framework they want to use.  So for me no-code isn't necessarily about pure power, its about optionality.  Taking an idea to build is also powerful in its own right.  If you have something you want to get out there, an MVP is basically just a nights work away.

Outside of Webflow and design, where else do you see no-code tools making an impact?

No-code is an "emerging" space right now, so there's tons of people trying to figure out the best way to implement it and where.  I personally see a lot around operational efficiency.  I think that portion of it is really undervalued at the moment.  Where now with no-code tools you're able to spin up custom business operation instances without buying all these super expensive softwares.  If you have any sort of business where service delivery is a part of it, that's where no-code is really powerful.  You can build dashboards with Airtable and Zapier with such little time and effort compared to coding these things yourself.  Ultimately it just makes it easier to acquire customers, and that's a startup's main job.  The faster you can get to the customers, the faster you win, and code is great, but code takes time.

Thinking about it in terms of time spent really does clarify the value prop.  So in thinking of no-code businesses I kinda see two main trends: vertical and horizontal.  When all the dust is settled, which business model wins?

Those that are going to win the no-code space have to provide the most amount of flexibility.  You can't be rigid.  Because similar businesses have different needs in their specific integrations.  So maybe someone wants to use Airtable for a CRM, but someone else needs their own custom database.  So the question isn't, at least to me, how do I solve this one problem, but rather, how do I create a product that can help people solve the problem themselves.  It's exceedingly difficult to pre-define all the use-cases of your product.  Like I can build so many things on Airtable, but I don't think Airtable had every possible option in mind when they started out.  They just knew they had to create something super customizable, super flexible, and they'd win a ton of customers.  That being said, I don't want to take away from vertical no-code solutions as well.  The advantage they have is going deep and thinking very specifically.  And if you're looking to service one particular customer, it can get to a point where the solution is really really powerful.

Is customization and flexibility super top of mind at Webflow?

I'll put it this way‚ÄĒ when you look at our roadmap, it's always centered around how we can get more people to use this part or that part of our product. Where can our capabilities extend? What are the possibilities right now and what possibilities do we want moving forwards. ¬†So yes. ¬†Absolutely top of mind.

David's List


At the end of the day Pallet is all about jobs, below is David's list of companies. Click on the link below to find jobs from those awesome places!

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Check out David's website: https://www.davidhoang.com/

And follow him on twitter here: https://twitter.com/davidhoang