Hello! Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy doing?
Hi there, my name is Courtney Burton Doker and I’m currently based in Atlanta, Georgia. Last year my husband and I lived in our Airstream trailer for 7 months, traveling around the country while working remotely. Before that I was living in Brooklyn, New York. I’m passionate about houseplants, southern hospitably, intersectional feminism, inclusion, and the desert. I love vegetable gardening, watching documentaries, making collage art, and long road trips.
How did you get started in product design?
The design school that I attended was very much focused on old-school design thinking, design history, and print. Because print has little room for error, the values taught there were geared more toward perfection, legacy, and craft. My personal values are more aligned with the love of imperfection, impermanence, and the incomplete. I bias hard towards constant evolution, so I gravitated more to the digital space as a playground for experimentation and iteration. I worked with one of the directors of the program to create a digital design track and was one of the first people to emerge from that program into the world of product design. I got my first job out of design school at Razorfish (now Publicis.Sapient) working on a team that redesigned Delta.com. The foundation of that work is something you can still see echoed through the site 8 years later.
Where do you work today? What is your title?
I work remotely for Automattic as a product designer leading the team that is building design systems.
How big is your company? How big is your design team?
Automattic has about 800 employees and the design team as a whole is around 60 people.
What types of things are you responsible for day-to-day?
For more context, the team I lead building design systems is cross-functional. Having a design language system enables our product teams to design, develop, and ship features faster while at the same time creating a more cohesive and usable customer experience. Practically speaking we do this by providing a comprehensive set of design principles, best practices, development guidelines, and by making our design and code reusable.
I’m responsible for working with our Engineering Lead and our Design Producer to set our team’s goals and roadmap, and then making sure our team is focused on the right work at the right time in service of those goals. We also need to make sure that our work is aligned with roadmaps and work streams across the organization in order to optimize our team’s ability to impact work in progress. I’m also responsible for making sure the other designer on our team has everything he needs to do his best work. I do my best to take on any work that might be distracting or blocking his progress. I also make sure that the work our team does gets shared more broadly across the organization so people understand and see the value.
Design systems is a fairly abstract concept and our team is introducing this idea to Automattic for the first time. Because of this a lot of my time is spent advocating for design systems which most frequently takes the form of giving systems feedback in org wide design reviews, answering questions around how to use the system, hosting AMA’s with teams, attending alignment meetings, and a lot of writing. I’ve learned that leaders of projects that bring big foundational changes across an organization spend a lot of their time doing the invisible work of change management. It’s hard not seeing the physical fruits of my labor as I once did but I try and stay focused on the long term vision we’re moving closer towards everyday and celebrate small wins as they come.
What do you love most about your work?
I really love collaboration. I’m energized by combining, remixing, and extending ideas to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Everything I’m the most proud of has come from teamwork or building upon the ideas of others.
What drains you at work?
Miscommunication is really hard to manage and is really draining. Things like differing terminology and naming conventions can cause conversations to spiral and lead to confusion that can sometimes take weeks or even months to untangle. Clarity and consistency are words I live by these days.
Can you walk us through your typical work day?
As an individual contributor my schedule was a lot more predictable and structured. My time was mostly my own to divide up as I saw fit. After transitioning into leadership the biggest unexpected shift was the unpredictability of my week. Most of my time is now spent in service of others and their work, and I have to make a concerted effort to block off time for myself. No day is the same, no week is the same, and I need to be a lot more available and flexible with my time.
|Before my workday starts||Setting the tone for the day|
I like to have a lot of time in the morning to wake up and do things around the house. I generally make pour-over coffee, make my bed, and listen to an episode of a podcast while doing some light cleaning. I work from home so keeping things tidy is an important part of mental clarity and productivity for me. I also try and mediate and write for 15 minutes each morning.
|Start of the workday||Catching up on asynchronous communication|
I start my work day by catching up on messages in Slack and through our internal communication tool we call P2. Because design systems work spans across the entire organization it can take some time to stay caught up, and because our organization is fully distributed work is happening around the clock.
|Late morning||Alignment and collaboration|
My first meetings for the day start. At the beginning of the week this takes the form of stand-ups, and during the rest of the week these meetings are usually for alignment, review, feedback, or collaboration. Depending on the day, meetings take up between 1 and 6 hours.
|Early afternoon||Small breaks throughout the day|
I would love to say that I take lunch breaks but honestly I frequently work through lunch either because of meetings or because I’m locked into whatever task I’m focusing on for the day. I find time to eat during smaller breaks here and there.
|Late afternoon||Deep work without interruptions |
When I was designing it was easy for me to focus on a singular task at hand, but as my work has shifted into leadership I have had to make more effort to give myself time to write, think, and plan. As a leader, part of my job is being available to answer questions and connect the dots from project to project. The constant alerts can sometimes lead to multi-tasking and a general feeling of being scattered. To alleviate that I fully close Slack while writing or planning so I’m not tempted to check in.
|Early evening||Alignment and collaboration|
Jump on Zoom or Slack to catch up on responding to questions or requests. I end my workday and set my computer to sleep 😴
Where do you turn for inspiration?
I find most of my inspiration from artists. I love experiencing art, reading about artist’s lives, and re-creating creative processes. The Creative Independent is an amazing resource of interviews where artists talk about various themes like making a name for yourself, the importance of being idle, or the value of starting over.
What design or project are you most proud of? (It can be recent or older).
I’m really the most proud of the work I’ve done building design systems at Automattic. It’s been challenging, rewarding, and has really pushed me out of my comfort zone into learning new skills.
Walk us through the design process you used for a recent project (you can pick any project).
At this point in my career I do more information design and storytelling than product design. I work to make abstract ideas concrete and digestible. I do quick sketches on paper that I then share with my team to narrow in on the right direction, and then I do lots of iterations in Figma. A big idea or plan is usually communicated through a diagram or a verbal video walk through, as well as in written form. People process and understand information in a lot of different ways, and if you want your message to reach as many people as possible you should be inclusive and varied in the ways you teach and share. This is something I’ve learned from working in a remote company that I would definitely use future forward in an office environment as well.
What career advice do you have for product designers just getting started?
The amount of skills that designers are “supposed” to have experience in nowadays is truly overwhelming. Start off by focusing on what you’re most passionate about and the rest will come over time. Also never underestimate the power of a network. The tech industry is smaller than you might think. In every job I’ve had as a product designer the people I’ve worked with have never been more than one or two degrees of separation from people I end up working with in the future.
Where’s the best place for folks to learn more about you or follow you?
You can get more info about me and my work on my website courtney-burton.com. If you want to look at photos I share of my life scroll on over to @scorpio.in.here on Instagram. If you’re in Atlanta swing through the ATL Design Systems meetup I help organize. I’d love to meet you!