Born in Zimbabwe, Farai was going to be doctor but didn’t get the grades. Now he's a designer. Make of that what you will.
Using words, scribbles, and pixels he’s spent the last 14 years helping design and build products and teams in the UK, South Africa and Canada.
Today, he makes a living designing interactions and leading a team as a UX Lead at Shopify in Ottawa.
In South Africa, Farai designed banking apps used by many across the continent. He grappled with unique design challenges because most internet users have never used a laptop or desktop. And some buy data by the megabyte.
Farai enjoys speaking about bridging knowledge gaps between designers. He's appeared at events worldwide, including IXDA Interaction and IASummit.
He organises Pixel Up! , a series of UX and design conferences and meetups in South Africa. These events connect designers and developers in Africa with their peers around the world.
Also, he adores verbiage, in all languages, township jazz, nerdy hip-hop, and the number 127.
[00:00:05] My name is Harrison Wheeler, and this is technically speaking.
[00:00:09] Guess what we are back, we are back for episode 11. And season two. In 2021.
[00:00:27]I have the pleasure of speaking with
[00:00:32] He is a design manager at Shopify, as well as the founder of South Africa's premier design conference pixel up.
[00:00:40] Today's theme. The craft of management.
[00:00:47] variety takes us in his meandering path to becoming a user experience designer as well as his transition into management with some helpful tips i'm sure folks that are going into a leadership pathway are sure to take some value out of
[00:01:02] But don't take my word for it. Here's for rye in his own words.
[00:01:07]Farai Madzima: [00:01:07] When we build trust, if you and I are working together on a team, And when we built trust, that is beyond trusting in our work skills, but trust that is based on us having spent time, no, each other's individuals.
[00:01:20] And what's important to you. What is Harrison, you know, working towards this organization and what am I working towards? Harrison has felt comfortable to share with me, you know, the areas that he's developing. And he said, you know what, I'm really, you know, I'm not good at this yet. I'm trying to work on this when you, and I feel comfortable to say, you know, you're better than me at this.
[00:01:37] Can you teach me how to do that? When we have that kind of trust where I can say that we work entirely differently, because then we can have the conversations that really help you and I grow. And when you scale that up and you've got, you know, a team of eight 16 people doing that, um, you can have much more vulnerable conversations that allow the team to grow that where mistakes are allowed to be made.
[00:02:02] Harrison: [00:02:02] Give us a brief introduction. Welcome to the show.
[00:02:06] Farai Madzima: [00:02:06] Hey man. Great to be on this. I'm loving the work that you're doing. So a bit about me. So originally I'm actually from Zimbabwe. That's where I was born. Stay there till I was about 18. I left with the intention of becoming a pediatrician.
[00:02:18]Didn't get the grades ended up being. Designer, um, make a connection of that. I don't know if there's anything about failed doctors and designers, but anyway, so that's where I, after that I learned about UX design and interestingly where I'm from, like. Design. Wasn't the thing that I knew of as like a possible like job or prospect.
[00:02:36] So is just something that I learned about when I went to the UK to university, um, find out about HCI, fell in love with it. And then, um, yeah, I've been doing that ever since did in the UK was in South Africa for seven years doing that. And now, yeah, I'm in Canada. I've been here for three years now and, um, yeah, uh, loving it, um, and also transitioning more towards kind of, um, Designing the environments and the processes for people to do it.
[00:02:59] The more the management side of design as well, which is a different challenge, but really enjoy it
[00:03:03]Harrison: [00:03:03] You're pivoting your careers. You're not going into medicine. Right. And then you're going from South Africa to UK, to Canada. Like tell me what that's like.
[00:03:12]Farai Madzima: [00:03:12] I used to think that. The choices I was making my life were deliberate. So obviously I decided to get on a plane, but whether I knew what the outcome was going to be was, you know, it's always up to chance 2020 is taught us that.
[00:03:24] Right. Um, so what I've started to believe in more is kind of, um, emergent strategy, which is I look at the next few steps. So in terms of leaving Zim for the UK, I'd say that was more my parents' choice. And they were like, yo man, you're going to get some good education. So are you going to get on this plane?
[00:03:42] And you're going to do this thing, but I was going the, you know, the, the, the medicine route. Since that didn't pan out, getting into design was, the last option that I had, funny enough. And even though I had kind of drawn things and I wanted to be an architect and everything, but nevertheless, it was the last choice that I had.
[00:03:57] And I went into that. Um, but having worked in that industry in the UK for awhile, one of the big challenges for me was around like having impact and trying to balance that with quality of life in the UK, you're at the bleeding edge of things, but having grown up in, you know, in, in Zimbabwe, in Africa, it's like, you know, 300 days of sunshine or that I missed that.
[00:04:16] So I was like, what if I could find a great place to live and find a place where I can apply my trade as I know it now. And so that school was a great place for that. Um, the UX community was just, you know, growing at that time. Um, and so that was a crazy transition because it felt as though I was starting over as, as you can imagine, but the industry was entirely different.
[00:04:38] It was very, very young there. Um, design schools in Africa, very few and far between. So a lot of folks have self-taught. Um, the people buying, uh, design, uh, also learning how to buy design and buying design is not just like a, Oh, we hired a designer. You need to know how to use that in your organization, you know, to not only to get money, but you know, to design your organization around how to get the benefit of it, all those things.
[00:05:00] You know, the teams that I joined us Africa were learning and I was happy to be a part of that. Then, um, we figured out out, um, uh, my partner and I figured out that, um, the move from South Africa, from the UK to South Africa, Gave us a perspective on the world that was different. We were thinking with that, what we had seen in the UK, but living in South Africa and we were able to do things like start, you know, the conference that, you know, that, that you spoke at, uh, a few weeks ago only could happen because we were looking at the world very differently.
[00:05:32] So we were like, what if we moved again? Um, would we, you know, would we see get another, would we amplify that and build a bit more? Um, and that's when the Canada option came up and I'm lucky enough. I managed to, you know, uh, link up with some Shopify peeps and they were like, cool, you want to come through?
[00:05:47] I was like, sweet, we got on a bus and we came out here. Um, and it's been yet again, mind blown, um, different perspectives and we're still figuring it out. But, um, yeah, it's been a learning journey, but emergent, not deliberate.
[00:06:03] Harrison: [00:06:03] somatically. It, it sort of feels like it has been more or less a journey of enlightenment and curiosity, more than more than anything.
[00:06:11] Farai Madzima: [00:06:11] Man. You're like, I should've just said what you just said,
[00:06:14] Harrison: [00:06:14] You would have saved us two minutes, man.
[00:06:18]Farai Madzima: [00:06:18] But absolutely right.
[00:06:20]PixelUpHarrison: [00:06:20] I know that you were, you, you organized this conference that we talked about, it's called pixel up. And so you've been hosting it for how long.
[00:06:28] Farai Madzima: [00:06:28] So we started in 2016. Um, and essentially, um, I was housemates with a dude who now works at Dropbox or worked at Dropbox in 2016. I was asked me to put them in the UK. Education for designers of Africa. There's not as much as we could have. Um, and so we thought hosting a conference, get some people to meet, share some ideas, you know, let's, let's try that.
[00:06:50] Let's figure it out. And, um, yeah, we've been doing that ever since.
[00:06:53]Harrison: [00:06:53] So in that, in that time that you've moved out of South Africa that you've started the, the pixel up conference. Like how would you say that the design industry or, community in South Africa, how has that progressed over time? Are you seeing changes there?
[00:07:10] Farai Madzima: [00:07:10] Huge huge, um, big, big change at the time when I arrived, design was mostly in marketing agencies. So a, you know, a big corporate would hire their marketing agency to design their apps and their websites for them. Um, and even, you know, some of the core digital products that they're offering, like banks would have the apps built by somebody else.
[00:07:28] But as soon after I arrived in about 2013, there was a big shift. And as we've seen around the world, Big corporates buying out design houses, bringing design in-house, building teams in-house and all of that, that started around the 2013 time. Um, and you know, we helped to progress that with our event and bringing, you know, uh, but we were a small part.
[00:07:49] The biggest part was I think. Big companies seeing trends overseas, looking for talent, and then seeing the benefit of having designed in-house as opposed to outsourcing it. So a huge change. Um, and also now design schools are coming up. Um, so now we're able to kind of, you know, to plant the seeds as opposed to just like going for the fruit.
[00:08:06]Pivot into managementHarrison: [00:08:06] You're in design management. And you obviously didn't start out from there. What were the motivators to then start moving into management?
[00:08:15]Farai Madzima: [00:08:15] So I happened to be working on a project where I was the first designer to land, and I ended up hiring everybody who rocked up after me. And that then ended up having me kind of, you know, being in management and, you know, helping to grow and build the team. So I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
[00:08:32] But as I started doing that, I started realizing, Oh, there's this whole other aspect to design and you know, that that's worth exploring. Um, and I found that I enjoyed it really, you know, and I was able to kind of, to, to have impact in doing that. And so it was a pleasant surprise. I found design, uh, by, I guess, you know, by chance and then design management again by chance.
[00:08:55] But both of those, uh, happenstances worked out really well for me.
[00:08:59]Harrison: [00:08:59] Management, not by choice.
[00:09:01] Farai Madzima: [00:09:01] No, not, not by choice. Um, but thankfully, um, welcome, you know, um, because I guess there's some folks who, you know, we know in our industry where, Oh, that's a really great designer, but the only progress is to turn them into a manager, but, you know, just because you enjoy and you're great at the craft doesn't mean that transition is going to translate into I'm great at people being great at people being great at, at, at the business side, that's an entirely different game and it's not for
[00:09:27]Harrison: [00:09:27] I have a very similar experience. Uh, I, I moved to, to Chicago to work at, uh, the startup company. I want to say about eight months in, of being there, we got, uh, Around the funding for, I think it was around like 30 million or something like that. And so, we decided to move out of Chicago and moved to Palo Alto, California.
[00:09:51] I think there were about four or five designers on the team back in Chicago. And I was the only one that made the trip.
[00:09:57] Farai Madzima: [00:09:57] Oh, wow.
[00:09:59] Harrison: [00:09:59] And so,
[00:10:00] Farai Madzima: [00:10:00] say you made the trip, it's like, Oh, okay. Maybe I do see what you're saying and not saying,
[00:10:05]Harrison: [00:10:05] Relocate completely to California and then, build a team. I think the challenge was not really having the name, like no one knew who our company was. And so that was a lot in terms of brand building, getting people in the door.
[00:10:19] But to your point, Yeah. Yeah. But then to your point, there's the craftsmanship portion of being a manager. There's the people part. Um, maybe let's dive in a little bit of that because I know that's something that you feel very passionately about. And, and so how would you define the craft of, of management.
[00:10:37]Craft of managementFarai Madzima: [00:10:37] I haven't tried to answer that question before, but I think the key thing to recognize is that it is a skill. It is a skill that you can suck at. When you don't know anything about, but it's a skill that through intentional work and feedback and practice, you can get better at and you can get really good at, you know?
[00:11:01] Um, and that's like, like any other skill, you know, you can go from being an apprentice to, you know, to, to mastery of this thing, although it will always be changing. And I think that's what we don't talk about enough. This is what I'm interested in is that in our trade, you know, you becoming a manager, you know, I don't know if we talk enough about how do you develop this, um, and how do you get good at it?
[00:11:25] Um, in tech as a, somebody who was in design or someone who was an engineer, um, we'd, I don't know if those, those, those pods exist for us.
[00:11:35] Harrison: [00:11:35] Yeah. I think when you put design in front of manager, I think people have this perception that you're also designing. So how, how does, how does your role change from being. You know, and I see to a manager, like what are the things that you're doing, where you have to completely fundamentally shift, like your mindset and approach
[00:11:57] Farai Madzima: [00:11:57] Yeah. I think one of the biggest things is trying to figure out how you have impact now. Um, so what I mean by that is if I'm doing the design work and I'm an IC individual contributor, the things that I do on the white board, the things that I do in Figma or whatever tool I'm using that can translate into impact on the product.
[00:12:20] But when I'm. Managing, um, and you know, design men just sometimes, you know, you are doing both on a consistent basis depending on your organization, but, um, you work for a fairly large organization as do I. And sometimes you can be more removed in which case your impact on the product is through other people. Right? And so what you're doing is to try to find, you know, as you were saying, when you move to Palo Alto, trying to find the right folks. To get the work done, you know, the design work that needs to get done done. So that's one thing. Once you found those folks, can you set them up for success? That means have you got the right environment for them to get things done within the organization?
[00:12:57] Design is not always welcome. Right. Um, and even if it is, does the organization, the organization might have good intent, but are they set up in the right way to actually make good on that intent. Um, so again, that's, that's work that you need to do for your team, and that's the impact that you can have so that you're removing barriers to folks.
[00:13:13] Then any processes when I was in South Africa, a simple thing, like I joined a bank and they were, uh, a windows house, Microsoft, um, and they'd never bought a Mac, like literally never bought a Mac. But if you imagine an organization of 50,000 people has got all these huge procurement processes and none of them include the thing that you want.
[00:13:31] How do you make that happen or do you want to buy Photoshop? And they're like, yeah, what is that? How do we do that? And so, as a design manager, I'm trying to get those things out of the way so that I can help, you know, the people who come in to get things done.
[00:13:44]Harrison: [00:13:44] Personally for me, management has. Been a series of learnings, to get to where I am today. Right. If you could look back, like, what were some of the major like milestones or aha moments for you?
[00:13:59] Farai Madzima: [00:13:59] So I think the. Most exciting initial thing for me was seeing and experiencing the growth. Um, and having people work on my team and having, you know, execs asked me questions and being able to kind of have impact at that level. That was exciting for me. So I think the first aha moment was, um, when in those conversations things don't go well
[00:14:21] so when you building a team, but then. Now, you know, as we are human and things will happen, right. You know, mistakes will happen. Um, and things don't work out with, with people that might be on the product, but it might also just be like, you know, the talent stuff, the HR stuff. And so the first aha moment for me was like, Oh, snap, this is not, you know, I'm not managing a machine where it design, but I've got real humans whose path in life.
[00:14:45] I have an impact on as their employee, they spend eight hours in a day, a day with me. You know, how do I take on that responsibility and try and do the right thing by them as well as the organization. So I think early on, I started to realize that, yeah, it's great to have a team, but that is a big thing.
[00:15:01] Um, and then in terms of business, so that was the first aha moment. I'd say. Then in terms of business was being asked now, you know, when you're starting to be asked about budgets and how you can influence the product and I was a young manager, and so all of a sudden I'm having to think about, Oh, I'm not just thinking about my section of the app, not the login screen.
[00:15:19] I'm thinking about they've got. For five apps and they want budgets for that and they want to hire for that. And they, you know, I'm going to need to think about 12 months out, you know, how much money do I ask for. So I think that was the second thing for me, realizing that, Oh, snap, like management has, I have to be in a position to think about all these things and to be able to have informed opinions on them, um, that, you know, the business is going to spend.
[00:15:42] Millions ostensibly. Um, and so I think that was the second thing for me. I guess the third thing was then realizing that. Even if I can't do it at the beginning, I can learn and it's my job to, to learn. Um, and so then going out and trying to understand, okay, cool. Looking after people, how do you do that?
[00:15:58]Design and business strategy. How do you do that? How do you get signed to seat at the table? And then how do you get to say, how do you say the right stuff when you get to that table? So I think those are some, some critical, um, moments in my journey as, as a man. Gotcha.
[00:16:13]Harrison: [00:16:13] I'm putting you on the spot. In hindsight, what one or two skills, um, or learnings that would be important to have if you're looking at going into the management field.
[00:16:23]Farai Madzima: [00:16:23] So for folks who worked in design like you, or I typically we start out in some sort of craft, right? We're doing the design work and then they can be a point in your organization, your growth, where it's kind of like, okay, where do you go from here?
[00:16:38] Because the next level up seems to look like management only. And in some organizations, that's the only part to go. Um, I've met folks. Who've had that choice. I've been in our company. Like you can choose to either go the management routes or to keeping an IC, but kind of, there's a, there's a more technical route.
[00:16:55] Um, and the conversation I have with folks is, um, when you think about managing a team and I lay it out for them and I'd be like, cool. You know, you know, you're gonna have to deal with, you know, how do folks grow? You know, what happens when things don't go well with folks? When you think about doing that work.
[00:17:13] Does that excite you as much as the craft work excites you? And do you feel as passionate about looking off to people in that respect as you do about looking after your files and your design work? So being able to ask and not just looking at, Oh, there's a fat paycheck on the other side of that, you know, which might be important and you can pursue that.
[00:17:31] But in reality, when you get there, um, there is a bunch of stuff that you need to be doing that is going to require. More than just like your presence and more than just your skill, but you're going to have to enjoy that to be really good at it in the same way that you have to enjoy your design work, to be good at it.
[00:17:46] So think about looking after people, does that excite you in that way and, you know, could you push through it when it's tough? Um, and all those things we know with your passion. So I think that's the that's the first piece is, and that I think that's more introspective. So thinking about, you know, yourself, um, So I think that that's one key thing to think about.
[00:18:06] The second key thing I think is then knowing whether you have access to the support to get through this thing. So in my mind, I'm not thinking that you need to have management skill to go into it, but I'm thinking, do you know, in the same way that I'm about to do this design work, I can visit these websites.
[00:18:24] I can, you know, read these books, you know, listen to these podcasts and that's going to help me skill up on the thing that I need to do if I want it to be good at people. Right. What do I do? Do I have an understanding of what that is? Does the company support me on that? Do I get to go on some courses where I can learn to be better at this and all those things?
[00:18:42] Like those are critical. You need those, because like I was saying earlier on, it's a skill that you need to invest in and that investment is your time, you know, your effort and some money in, and you know, if you've got access to those things, then I think, yeah. Consider it strongly and see if you want to do it.
[00:18:59]Harrison: [00:18:59] I think I resonate with your, with your second point a lot. I think at this stage of my career, it's been more important forever for me to. You know, kind of have these trainings. I always kinda go back. Um, I think episode two, my guest was Brooks yeah. Yeah. So, um, you know how to have some really powerful conversations, with him, especially around the topic of having conversations.
[00:19:27] And I think knowing how to understand and having frameworks and going into these. You know, these tough decisions, right. And those tough decisions can be, when it comes to advocating for max or, you know, advocating for more head count or even coaching your team, right. It's such a powerful tool to have.
[00:19:48]I love that. You've really kind of highlighted that and, and I'm going to transition. You're gonna love this segue. I saw that you're speaking. Are you doing an event apart?
[00:19:57] Building inclusive teamsFarai Madzima: [00:19:57] Yeah, I did. Um, we hung out this week. Actually. It was on Tuesday.
[00:20:00] So for those who might not know an event apart is a long-standing organization, um, by, um, uh, Eric and Jeffrey, which is for building websites, um, they believe in the web a hundred percent and they've been kind of helping, you know, that. Yeah, folks who are interested in that to get the skills and knowledge they want.
[00:20:16] And so more recently over the last couple of years, I've been hanging out with them as they've been, uh, you know, we're talking more about teams and how do we build teams that work well in teams that are great. Again, this is part of the, you know, people management work, right. We want to build and design, you know, good teams.
[00:20:30] And so in that talk, um, I, I discuss inclusion and inclusion from the perspective of, um, how it has an impact on the effectiveness of a team. And so. I think the conversation around inclusion a lot is, you know, can be around the, uh, the, the lack of equity, which is important and we need to absolutely get those things.
[00:20:52] Right. Um, the thing that I add to that conversation is just the understanding that even if you build a diverse team and you solve whatever they think is a pipeline problem, and you get people into the building, Um, if they do not feel included and included means, do we treat and work with them in a way where they feel like they, they feel safe to be themselves?
[00:21:15] So an example I give is, for example, my name is . Um, but for the longest time when I was in the UK, um, I asked people to call me phys, a nickname from school. Why not because I wanted them to be my friends or I want it to be cool, but I, I was, I didn't want them and do want that experience of people go, Oh, how do I say your name for right.
[00:21:33] For re for rod Ferrari? Um, I hated doing that and I didn't feel comfortable doing that. So I was like, let me make it easy for them. That is a small example of how I didn't feel safe. I didn't feel included in that environment and people weren't making the effort to learn my name in the right way. And so ultimately those small things add up.
[00:21:53] To this feeling of I'm not safe here. I don't feel like I belong as myself. I have to be something else. And so in that talk, I give lots of examples like that, where I try to show that when people come into organization and they don't feel included, the likelihood is you can have as many diverse highs as you want, but they're not going to stay, or they're not going to grow in your organization.
[00:22:11] They're not going to get to management levels. Right. But if you have that inclusion, No matter what your team makeup is, no matter where you are in the world, people work so much better when they feel included, even when it's people who are from the same background. Right. But when they feel included, when they feel safe, when they feel like they belong.
[00:22:27] And when there's a great amount of sheds trust between the people who are working together, um, trust that's built on vulnerability, not just like, Oh yeah. You know, Harrison is a great designer. I trust him, you know, with, to do this work. No, it's more like, yo I know some things about Harrison that nobody else in the world, you know, Does, you know, we shared this, you know, just relationships.
[00:22:46] Not that he's told me all his life secrets, but rather, you know, we have, uh, we have put a stake, uh, or, or put something important to each other.
[00:22:53]When we build trust, if you and I are working together on a team, And when we built trust, that is beyond trusting in our work skills, but trust that is based on us having spent time, no, each other's individuals.
[00:23:07] And what's important to you. What is Harrison, you know, working towards this organization and what am I working towards? Harrison has felt comfortable to share with me, you know, the areas that he's developing. And he said, you know what, I'm really, you know, I'm not good at this yet. I'm trying to work on this when you, and I feel comfortable to say, you know, you're better than me at this.
[00:23:23] Can you teach me how to do that? When we have that kind of trust where I can say that we work entirely differently, because then we can have the conversations that really help you and I grow. And when you scale that up and you've got, you know, a team of eight 16 people doing that, um, you can have much more vulnerable conversations that allow the team to grow that where mistakes are allowed to be made.
[00:23:46] Um, and lessons from those things learned with no feeling that, Oh, I'm going to F you know, I'm, you know, I'll get kicked out for this or I'll get really killed for this, but rather we all grow from that. So in that talk, I discussed those kinds of things and say that when a team has safety, belonging, trust, that's based on this vulnerability, we operate at a higher level of efficiency and not to say that efficiency should be the only thing that we're seeking.
[00:24:08] But rather if we add that to the fact that we just need inclusive teams, because that's the right thing to do. We can have a more rich conversation with business and with everybody who's looking to invest in, you know, an inclusion in our organizations and teams.
[00:24:24] Harrison: [00:24:24] wow. That's powerful. Where, where might folks be able to tune into that conversation?
[00:24:29] Farai Madzima: [00:24:29] Yeah. So at this point, I don't know if an event pod makes those things available. Um, but I can find out and maybe we can put them in the line of notes or something like that. And we can, we can drop a link. Um, I can, you know, I can, I can find that out for you. Yeah.
[00:24:43] I think, I think, you know, you managed to dig into some, some, some really important things. Um, I wanted to ask you more questions, but I, but I didn't kind of get to, uh,
[00:24:50] Harrison: [00:24:50] Hey, man, this is, this is,
[00:24:51] Farai Madzima: [00:24:51] Yeah. So you get, you get to say what you want to say. Um, but yeah, man, I really appreciate it.
[00:24:58] Thanks for making the time and, you know, um, and for giving me this opportunity. Um, so yeah, um, it's been great hanging out for sure.
[00:25:06] ClosingHarrison: [00:25:06] Yeah, man. So, so how can people find out more about you or pixel up conference?
[00:25:11] Farai Madzima: [00:25:11] Yeah. Um, so pixel up the today, um, uh, we update that from time to time to kind of, you know, keep things posted 2020 has been pretty rough. So we, we kind of slowed things down, but, um, that's a great place to kind of see what's going on for Ima zima.com. The link will be in the notes, but, um, yeah, you can go there and kind of see, you know, where I'm speaking or some talks that I'm doing that it's where you can kind of catch me the most.
[00:25:33] I've been off Twitter. Um, just 2020 has been. We had on Twitter. So I've just been like, you know, a bit more, a bit more reality, but those, those places will be great to find me.
[00:25:43]Harrison: [00:25:43] Awesome. Well, thank you so much, man. I appreciate you. Uh, and, and again, I can't thank you enough for making the time to be on the show, despite everything that's been going on.
[00:25:53] Farai Madzima: [00:25:53] all good, man. Thanks Harrison. Appreciate it.
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