Championing Low-Ego Leadership at Figma
In this episode of Uniquely Led, Dylan Field, CEO & co-founder of Figma, shares his journey of going from intern to CEO at the age of 20, discovering the difference between leadership and management, and the importance of being a low-ego leader. He discusses Figma’s culture of growth, which focuses on bringing in amazing people and ensuring they achieve their full potential.
Dylan Field: How do we really grow people? How do we make this the best culture it possibly can be, whether that’s through bringing people in that fit that culture, or once they’re there, by really empowering them
Jack Altman: Hi, I’m Jack Altman. I am the CEO and co-founder here at Lattice, and welcome to Uniquely Led, where we sit down with awesome company leaders and talk to them about their unique styles and how that impacts culture. Today we are really excited to be sitting down with Dylan Field, the CEO and co-founder of Figma, which helps you design anything you want with your colleagues. Excited to talk all about the company with Dylan today. Dylan, thank you so much for being here.
Dylan Field: Thanks for having me. It’s good to see you, man.
Jack Altman: The first question we like to ask, which you’re not going to like, what would you say distinguishes you from other leaders?
Dylan Field: I’d like to think that, compared with a lot of other leaders, I’m pretty humble. I literally feel like I can learn from anyone that’s at Figma. When you’re surrounded by incredible folks, it’s really easy to stay humble. That’s not saying, by the way … I’m going to say humble. I’m not saying I’m putting myself down. I’m pretty confident in myself. Rather, I’m saying that I don’t think I’m better than other people.
Jack Altman: Do you care about this trait showing up throughout the culture? Because that’s something about you, are you trying to also create a culture where that is a value that everyone holds?
Dylan Field: Yeah. I think I’m pretty allergic to arrogance, and pretty allergic to people that are super high-ego and it’s all about them. My viewpoint is I’m working for Figma. If you’re on Figma team, if you’re my coworker, we’re both working for Figma. We’re both in pursuit of this vision. We’re trying to make design accessible to everyone. That’s really important to us, because design is, I think, going to be the skill of at least the next decade if not the century. I take a pretty wide view of what design can mean. It’s not just interface design, which is what we’re known for, but design is also visual communication. It’s building software. It’s all creativity. How do we make it so that, as we’re transitioning from a physical economy to the digital economy, everyone has access to that?
Jack Altman: I want to talk about how you’ve scaled yourself through all the growth, because you started the company pretty young. Can you talk about where you were at when you started the company and what sort of leader you were then, and maybe a bit about how that’s evolved, where you are now?
Dylan Field: Yeah. I started Figma in August 2012, so coming up on nine years ago, which is insane.
Jack Altman: Wow.
Dylan Field: At the time, I was 20. I had just come off of an internship at Flipboard. I’d been there twice, first time as more of an engineer. Second time, I got on the design team. I was really excited about that. I didn’t know why they’d have me, I didn’t have a lot of design background, but they were super awesome. I was pretty unimpressed the tools at the time, so started to get really excited with my co-founder about looking at all sorts of different creative tools, and figuring out what we could build in WebGL and bring to the browser and make more collaborative.
It took a while to figure out exactly what we were doing. Once we did, we doubled down, kept building, kept scaling it and kept raising money. Very quickly I had to learn how to manage people. That was hard. I knew nothing about management. I knew some about leadership. I definitely didn’t know that management and leadership were different things. Then I think it got really tough as we were nearing that 10- to 12-person mark and I no longer could have everyone report to me. I was already struggling. There was other stuff going on in my life at that time too that was really, really tough.
We brought on another manager. His name is Shelley and he was our first director of engineering, still with the company as a director of product today. He was someone that I learned a lot from in terms of how he empowered teams, how he really didn’t micromanage, and gave people that are creative room to grow and to lead and to work through stuff themselves, while also keeping things on the rails. I was really impressed, and learned a lot about what I wanted to do as a manager and leader by watching him.
Jack Altman: Was it easy for you to see your gaps, or was part of the problem not understanding even what you didn’t know? Did you have a clear understanding of what you wanted to accomplish and what you needed to change as a leader yourself?
Dylan Field: I got there over time. I think it’s interesting, because a lot of times people ask for help for the first time when they’re going through struggles. That was definitely the case for me. The first time that I got some coaching and I did an assessment, and there was this histogram they gave you as part of this assessment that had three bars showing your skills as a leader. The average was here. Usually you had one bar, they said, that was up here. Maybe you had a few bars that were a little bit below average. Mine were all zero, because the team was really unhappy with me.
Jack Altman: All of them were zero?
Dylan Field: All of them were zero.
Jack Altman: Oh, God.
Dylan Field: This is right after I had a pretty intense moment with my team, and people were saying, “Hey, something’s got to change. You’ve got to really improve here.” I went in front of this coach, and the coach was like, “Yeah, you’re shit.”
Jack Altman: Wow.
Dylan Field: To be fair, they gave me a lot of good feedback too. I think when things are like that, not just for our CEO but for anyone in the org, you really had to figure out, okay, how do you rapidly change and shift? What’s going to be really important? For me, that was basic skills. More effort on getting buy-in, making sure that we were having good cadence, because we’re still [inaudible 00:05:21] after a few years. Let’s have a good cadence to launch, to make sure that people are really seeing that we’re going to get this thing out there. Empowering people more, not micromanaging, and making sure that we’re improving the team and getting to the right culture, because we didn’t have a culture established yet.
Those are some of the core things that were showing up that then impacted everything else. I think it’s like, “Okay, is there anything mechanical that’s missing?” Then you get to the higher level of skills around are you giving a sense of purpose to the team, are you really helping people grow and develop and all the fun stuff.
Jack Altman: Do you find ways in which that experience of you going through that much growth helps you help others go through this kind of growth? When you’re now helping somebody on your team scale or see where they need to grow, are you able to draw back on your own experience and make it relevant to them?
Dylan Field: I try to. I mean, I think anytime you can share a story or tell people about part of your life and show how it could apply, I think it can be really useful. One thing that I heard as a piece of advice in college was when someone gives you advice, they’re not giving advice to you, they’re giving advice to themselves in your shoes. I always try to give people the framework of, “Well, here’s how I process this and here’s what experiences I’ve had in the past,” so they can better understand how I react to something, because that lens might be useful for them or might not.
Jack Altman: That’s great advice.
Dylan Field: That way I can try to give more context and contextualize more.
Jack Altman: Yeah. I know nine years, it definitely happened over a long period of time, but still by any measure, it’s a very fast-growing company. You’ve been in fast growth for a while now. You’re also somebody who cares a ton about culture. I think for a lot of people, those two things can sometimes feel at odds, like, “Oh, should I grow super fast, or should I keep a great culture?” I guess I’m curious. How do you think about those two things? Are they at odds, and what are the ways that you balance those now while you are growing as quickly as you are?
Dylan Field: I mean, you kind of want to capture growth, right? In case people watch this interview in five years and the economy is total shit, we’re in a period of time in 2021 right now where valuations are a bit crazy. A lot of people are raising a lot of money.
Jack Altman: People are hiring quickly.
Dylan Field: People are hiring quickly. I think people are seeing one of the most competitive labor markets since 2000.
Jack Altman: It certainly feels that way.
Dylan Field: We’ll see how long that lasts, but that’s where we’re at right at this moment. I think as we’re there, if you’re raising like Lattice has recently, if you’ve raised a ton of money for your company, there’s always a temptation of like, “Okay, how fast can we grow this thing? Can we do 5X in a year?” It’s like, “Well, no.” It’s usually a bad idea. Some people can. We’ve always capped it pretty much at 2X per year.
Jack Altman: On head count?
Dylan Field: On head count growth. Sometimes we do a little bit above that, but 2X is sort of the ceiling, then we only do a little bit more than that if we have to. I think as we get larger, we’re going to probably bring that down a bit. I think that growing 2X when you’re 360 people, or we’ll probably end the year a little over 500 people, so I don’t think we’ll go to 1,000 in 2022. I think we’ll probably go significantly less than that. We want to grow as fast as we can to make the most of this time in the market where we’ve got a winning product, while also not just breaking everything.
Jack Altman: Right. Even growing 2X in a year at your scale is super fast.
Dylan Field: Oh, yeah. No, it feels crazy at times.
Jack Altman: Yeah. I guess I’m curious. Hiring is the defining hallmark of that growth. When you are doubling head count, it feels like everybody’s recruiting all the time, everybody’s trying to fill roles. How do you keep the bar high? How do you make sure that people are fitting what you’re looking for when people are, I’m sure, overwhelmed with work, when people are super busy, when they just want to get the hire done and get on to the next one? How do you double head count successfully in a year?
Dylan Field: I’ve tried from the start to make a culture of hiring is one of the most important things we do, and also we should never rush it. It starts by example. Every search I do personally, I’m never rushing a search, and sometimes that can be very painful. I remember our head of recruiting, for example. It took 7, 8, 9 months, I forget exactly how long, before we failed to fill that role. I would’ve loved to fill it in two to three months, and we needed to fill it in two to three months. We waited until we found the right person, or actually we met the right person right at the start. It just took them nine months to figure out that we were the right company.
Jack Altman: Will you ever hire someone that you don’t think is perfect for the role, just to get it done?
Dylan Field: I’m sure we have historically, but I can’t remember a recent time that we’ve done it. I try to imbue that in all the organization, but also I try to make sure that everyone knows how important it is that they really embody hiring and that they are responsible for building their team. If you’re a head of engineering or some area of Figma, part of your job is to find the right people to build your team with. Yes, Recruiting is there to help, but it’s on you, and it’s not a valid excuse to be like, “Oh, I didn’t get enough help from Recruiting.” In reality, Recruiting I think was also amazing. That’s why we waited so long to bring on Nadia. It’s been amazing to watch, just how we’ve grown that team.
I think Recruiting, the right ethos for it is sort of they’re not only building the organization and trying to attract some of the greatest talent in the world to come work in the company, they’re also trying to make sure that we have a really diverse team and that when we bring people in, that they are having a great sense of belonging in the company, they feel included, but also that they’re playing defense in a way. It’s like how can we make sure that we’re getting people out of the process that are not the right fit for the culture, who are not the right fit for these roles? When you find somebody who’s an amazing fit for the culture but not the right fit for the role, how do I find another role one day for them to come into, and how do we make sure we build that relationship with them?
Jack Altman: You said something there that I’ve heard from a bunch of what I think are great leaders, which is that you always expect the manager to be responsible for hiring, and that if Recruiting supports them, that’s great, but that’s not the expectation. Why is that important?
Dylan Field: You really want the manager to feel invested in whether that person is going to work out in the company. You want them to respect the process, respect the pipeline. If they’re not intimately involved and familiar with that, Recruiting’s just serving them candidates, then it feels different, I think. Also, I think Recruiting only has so much bandwidth. We have to make sure that if there’s roles that we’re trying to fill, that Recruiting has the bandwidth to help with that. They’re going to get some help, but mostly people are doing it on their own too.
Jack Altman: Yeah. I’m curious a little bit about your culture, which from the outside looks similar to your product in certain ways. It looks like you’ve got a culture where you really value creativity, for example. I’m a little bit curious, A, is it right that that’s at the center of your culture, and B, how do you do that? Because I think for so many software companies or startups in general, it feels like it’s more professionalized and a little bit less raw and creative. For whatever reason, I feel like Figma has captured some of that raw creativity. I’d love to hear how that’s happened.
Dylan Field: I think there’s all these great feedback loops that happen in the world. One of them for us is we make this fun, creative tool. Then people that use that tool and really resonate with it, I think they get interested in joining Figma. That’s one feedback loop that I think brings people that are creative into the company.
Another one is one of our values is love your craft, and also grow as you go. It’s in our value. We really try to reward people that are focused on the craftmanship of it, that are trying to grow their craft and figure out new ways to grow their skills. I think that that’s something that’s rewarded, and then also it makes time and space for it. For example, we have maker weeks, which are like hack weeks but for everyone. We do those twice a year. We bring lots of people in and just give people a space to flourish and to make anything they want to, as long as it helps Figma in some way.
I’ve been really impressed with what people have done during those weeks. That’s some of the most times that we’ve had our R&D funnel be just filled up with so many amazing efforts that maybe don’t see the light of day for years, but they’re the initial seeds that will grow over time, as well as things that are just cultural. At the start of COVID, we had a musical come out that was made in a week. Completely written, produced, directed, performed by Figmates.
Jack Altman: Wow.
Dylan Field: In just a week.
Jack Altman: Do you find that there are things that are in tension with creativity, like a focus on metrics or when you’re in hyperscale? Do those eat away at creativity, or are you able to keep those both in the balance at the same time?
Dylan Field: I think when you’ve got a really defined roadmap over a long period of time … which is super tempting to do, because there’s always all this stuff that you’re not knowing how to do … that can be in tension sometimes, because people don’t have the room to really be creative if they’re like, “Okay, I have to fix these thousand bugs in this order.” You know, it’s not a very creative act.
I do think that actually metrics, if you’re measuring and saying, “Okay, your KR is to hit X thousand weekly active users for this thing, or Y percentage of people that use this product should use this feature,” or whatever it is, that actually can be a pretty creative thing. Because then you’re saying, “Here’s the target, go hit it.” It’s not prescribing how to hit it. I’m not saying that Figma is always 1000% creative. We have to get the stuff done. You don’t want to just be divergent all the time. You have to converge too.
Jack Altman: Is there anything besides creativity, humility, that come to mind for you as core to what Figma is all about?
Dylan Field: Community is a big one. I think how do we grow and build a community where everyone can be together and learn from each other. I think ownership is a big one. That’s something that we’re always improving on, but making it so people can just really run with it and be able to execute on stuff. I don’t think we can scale appropriately if we don’t have that. I think just fun. If you’re not having fun, why are you there? Why are we all working on this? The more that you can make it so that people feel permission to have fun, I think it’s really important.
Jack Altman: I think your products also show that. Like FigJam is fun, for example, even the name. I think that’s really important, which I guess goes back to community too. On the community point, it brings me to the next thing I want to talk to you about, which is the world of work, hybrid, Figma’s place in that both as a company itself, then also as a tool for the world of remote work.
I want to start by noticing the fact that you were among or maybe even the first company that I saw to name hybrid back in August of last year, way before it was cool to name it. You named it pretty early, and you wrote a blog post and you shared like, “This is how we’re thinking about things.” I recall thinking, “Wow, what a bold early decision.” I was like, “I wish I had known how to do that.” I guess I’m curious. How did you come to that? What was the source of figuring out, “I’m going to make this particular call, and I’m going to do it before the masses go there”?
Dylan Field: People had so little clarity last year, and there was so much anxiety over everything. I was like, “If we can just tell people one thing that could be a rock for them in terms of what it’s going to be like to go back, I think that could be really helpful.” The way we went about it to figure it out was, “Let’s survey people.” What I found out when I surveyed people was the results were everywhere. Some people were die-hard, “I want the office. If you take the office away from me, I’m out.” Some people were, “I’m never coming back to an office. I’m remote forever. I love my new … “
Jack Altman: “If you force me to go back, I’m out”?
Dylan Field: Well, it’s just not even a consideration. “I’m in my beautiful rural space and I can’t wait for my StarLink, it’s going to be great,” and everything in between. The other thing that was interesting was teams counterintuitively did not match what I thought they would be in terms of distribution of who wanted to be where. Engineering was more in person-skewed, Sales was more remote-skewed, whereas I thought that’d be the opposite.
Jack Altman: Same. We had that same realization, yeah.
Dylan Field: Really? That’s so interesting. Anyways, so I was like, “Okay, we’re going to need to be hybrid.” Some people end up wanting to be remote, some people want to be in person. If you’re remote, we’ll [inaudible 00:18:06] you. It won’t be anywhere in the world. We can only do it in some regions like North America, for example, due to tax and whatnot. If you’re going to be associated with a hub, great. Everyone associated with a hub should come in at least two days a week, the same two days for everyone to maximize serendipity, maximize cross-team connection. If you want to come in five days a week to the hub, seven days, whatever, we give you a key. You’re welcome to come do that, but two days is what we expect.
We’ve rolled it out for New York and London. Those offices are open. SF will open soon. Yeah, excited to see how it works. I think hybrid will present a lot of challenges too. I think a lot of teams will not be up for that, and they’ll end up converging to remote or in-person and not be in the between state. To me, it’s like we want to scale to be thousands of people anyway. We’re a global business. Like 81% of our weekly active users are outside the United States. It’s like we have to be global, and how do we get there? Being hybrid is part of that.
Jack Altman: We’re also doing hybrid, and it strikes me that there’s things that are great about remote, there are things that are great about in-person. I guess I’m curious. How are you thinking about getting the best of both worlds instead of the worst of both worlds?
Dylan Field: Yeah. This is all hypothetical, just to be clear, because we’re still figuring it out. I think having annual summits where people can all come together as a company will be important. I was talking with people that had already done the hybrid thing before the pandemic even happened. They were saying, “Oh, yeah. Well, we operate remote, we’re a hybrid team, but we would never operate this way. We always have people coming together. Face time is really important.” That’s one note.
I think another one is I like to give things like All Hands. We call it FigNation. We have a lot of fig puns. That’s pretty great. I like to keep FigNation all remote. I think it’s actually more inclusive that way, more level as a playing field. Things like that are things we’re experimenting with, and we’ll see. We’ll figure it out.
Jack Altman: What’s your experience of what Figma the product’s role has been in all of this? Obviously it’s something that works remotely. Is it better in the remote world than in an office? Does it make no difference? How do you think about Figma’s role in the ecosystem of enabling remote work or hybrid?
Dylan Field: It was a little weird, because we designed Figma as an all-in-person company. Then we found that people that were all remote really, really liked Figma, as well as people that were in-person, but remote was off the charts. I think over the pandemic, we saw people not only gravitate more towards Figma, but also we saw a lot more people just use Figma for 10-plus hours a day. They were in it all the time.
Jack Altman: That’s a lot of hours.
Dylan Field: Yeah. As they were in it all this time, they were not just doing the core interface design work. They were doing all sorts of use cases. Last year we saw everything, from people creating a virtual city. When the pandemic hit people recreated San Francisco in Figma.
Jack Altman: That’s cool.
Dylan Field: Yeah, that was pretty sweet. We saw people plan out gardens and home improvement projects. We saw Biden design … not him, but his team, designing the Biden plane in Figma. It was like everything in between.
Jack Altman: Wow.
Dylan Field: These cases were really out there, but we also saw diagramming, whiteboarding, slide creation.
Jack Altman: Did you come up with FigJam during the pandemic?
Dylan Field: We’d always wanted to do diagramming whiteboarding as a product, but the pandemic hit and we saw so many people start doing that use case in Figma that we thought, “Okay, we have to go build a product around this immediately.” It took a probably good six months before we really realized that and had a full team staffed. Then from there, it was just kind of a race to how fast can we get this out, because people needed it.
Jack Altman: One last question around this topic. You mentioned earlier that this is where you’re heading for now, but we don’t know exactly what the future holds. We also talked about how this is the most competitive job market of all time. What are the things that you’ve noticed now versus say 18 months ago before the pandemic where you think there’s a real lasting change in work, whether it’s things like flexibility or maybe it’s perks or maybe it’s something completely different? What do you believe will be different now than was true in the past?
Dylan Field: Well, I think flexibility stays. I just can’t imagine. I think you’re seeing some of the hardcore finance companies say, “Everyone back at the office,” and we’ll see if it works. Maybe it will for that industry, but for tech, I mean, we’ve undergone a change. There’s no going back to everyone’s in the office all the time. That’s over. Any company that tries to hang onto that will be told by the labor market it’s not going to work. I think that maybe there’s an exception for R&D or places that are very specialized, talking about companies like Lattice and Figma. Our employees aren’t going to stand for that.
I think another part that will be interesting is as people spread out more, where are the hubs that will emerge. There will be more hubs. Probably pay will equalize more across the world, not just the United States, over enough time. I think that it’s a good thing if there’s more hubs outside of Silicon Valley.
Also I think that the other thing we’ll see is funding is clearly going to go outside of Silicon Valley. The infrastructure, it used to be that you had to be in Palo Alto or SF to get a round raised, because of course people want to meet you in person. That’s no longer the case. As startups and companies get founded all across the world, they exit, eventually people start angel-investing the proceeds they made. Then you have really great ecosystems starting to form in all these different places. It’ll be interesting to see which ones have network effects. I don’t know, but I’m really excited to see that.
Jack Altman: Another thing I want to ask you about is something that I think is really important to people in the Lattice community, which is about how people can go from getting started in HR or people ops all the way up through being a chief people officer. I guess the thing I’m particularly interested to hear about is what are you looking for from the head of people in your company? What’s that relationship that you want to have between you and that leader?
Dylan Field: As I think about what it means to be a great HR leader, I think it’s you have to go out beyond compliance. You have to go beyond thinking about just how not to fuck up as a business and more into how do we really grow people. How do we make this the best culture it possibly can be, whether that’s through bringing people in that fit that culture, or once they’re there, by really empowering them and giving them that track that they can go self-actualize through, and creating a culture of growth?
I think that fun and play, and love in some ways. I think that that’s not every company that’s going to do that, but if you can find the right company, that’s a good first step, assuming that those values resonate with you. If they don’t, then probably go somewhere else. Then I think it’s about how do you get the technical skills you need, as well as making sure you have those soft skills to be able to really help a team evolve.
Jack Altman: Okay. The last question I want to ask you about is around this idea that I think we’ve all observed, that people’s values have changed over the course of the pandemic because everything was stripped away from us, then we built back up from nothing. We were all just at home. We had our work, we had our families, but we didn’t have a whole lot else. I guess I’m curious to hear from you what you’ve observed about how those values have changed, and maybe what that means.
Dylan Field: That’s beautifully said, first of all. I think a lot of people are just more in touch with themselves right now. They’re more in touch with where they want to go in life, what life means for them, and some people are going to go in radically different paths because of that. We’ve seen people at Figma already transition from hardcore engineering careers to careers that nothing can be further away from engineering. They’ve all been very respectful about that and leaving Figma in a good timeline, stuff like that.
It’s not always about, “Oh, I want to go from Company A to Company B.” Sometimes it’s like, “I want to go from Track A to Track Z in my life.” I think that the best thing we can do is support people through that. There’s going to be a lot of instability for a bit as people figure this out and companies need to adapt, but there’s a reason you bring people into your company, and you want to care for them and show them your support.
Jack Altman: I think it’s really important, what you just said about helping support people through that change and not trying to force people into the thing that you think is best for your company, but actually taking a lens of, “We’re going to help people do what’s best for them, and we have this long-term belief that that’s going to support the company.”
Dylan Field: Sometimes it’s both. Sometimes it’s like you can find ways to support somebody and also have it be great for the company too. Yeah, it just doesn’t ever seem to work, when you take somebody that’s trying to do X and make them do Y.
Jack Altman: Totally.
Dylan Field: All right. Well, Dylan, this was such a great conversation.
Jack Altman: Yeah. Thank you, man.
Dylan Field: Appreciate you taking the time.
Jack Altman: Well, thank you for all of your amazing software that we use to run Figma.
Dylan Field: Same to you. Thanks. Always great to see you. Talk soon.
Jack Altman: Okay.