When Dynin joined Agoda in 2015, there were only 5 designers in the design team. Starting out in his position as an individual contributor, he didn’t know that he was about to grow that same team to almost 50 designers as of today.
Back then, there was a need to prove the additional value that our design organization can bring to the table, and he took on himself the mission and vision to make it happen.
Discussing the meaning and implications of a team's maturity, in this episode 3 of the Design Explorers, Dynin Khem, our Design Director, is sharing the story and his perspective of the ongoing journey of scaling up our team.
Dynin Khem 00:00
A lot of teams that are maturing, you know, they have design managers and design leaders in a similar position where, you know, what's next in terms of how to take the team to the next level. Right? And that's a common thing that comes up all the time. You know, when I'm engaged, in these discussions or debates, it's, it's the business, right? It's like how can we communicate well to the business, in their own language where, you know, they understand versus using jargon, right.
Nahum Yamin 00:31
Hello, and welcome to the design explores a podcast by the Agoda design team. Agoda.com is a global digital travel platform where you can book hotels, vacation rentals, flights, and airport transfer. In this podcast, we'll be sharing the awesome work of our design team, discuss interesting trends in relation to design and travel, and talk about product design in general. My name is Nahum Yamin, and I will be your host for the show. What does it take to grow a design team from five to 50 designers? And how do you level up the maturity of this team? How do you make sure that when scaling the team, the processes remain efficient? in today's talk, I'm discussing within and our design director about his journey from joining agoda as an individual contributor to actually build and lead our design organization. Enjoy your listening and the show. Let's start.
Nahum Yamin 01:35
Welcome to our third episode of the design explores I'm very excited to have Dynin, our design director here with me today to share with us his journey of growing the design team together from less than 10 people to almost 50 years as of today. So it was about like seven, six people here, right when you joined?
Dynin Khem 01:49
Nahum Yamin 01:50
Dynin Khem 01:50
five people. Definitely, definitely a good journey
Nahum Yamin 01:54
Dynin moved here from Amazon, in the US to Bangkok to join a Agoda almost six years ago. So I'm going to start actually with the basic question like why, like back then six years ago, what what made you move here today?
Dynin Khem 02:05
Yeah, I think, yeah, I mean, when you put it that way, six years ago is definitely the time flies by right. You're here at the time, and really similar to a lot of people, but at that time, you know, I worked at Amazon for about four years, you know, shipping, kind of like b1 projects. And during that time, it felt very, kind of looking for something different or more interesting, because, you know, I kind of been through to the cycle of cycle of getting products from zero to one and is definitely feeling burnt out. So I was looking for my next opportunity. And, you know, I started talking to the guys out here in Thailand, it felt like, like an interesting fit. And also kind of like a lot of cool stuff was happening. So that's kind of why I decided to take the leap and go on this adventure. And then, you know, fast forward six years, I would say, it's definitely been an adventure, but also, you know, something that I look at as being a positive decision in my life.
Nahum Yamin 03:03
Right. So you're arriving here, you're seeing this five people in the design team, like, what's your initial thoughts? About?
Dynin Khem 03:10
Yeah, I think, originally, when I joined the team, you know, I joined as IC (individual contributer), right, I was a, I was a senior designer. And I think my first task was to do to was basically to redesign a search page, I think at the time was, it was clear that a Agoda design organization was mature. And and basically, what we really needed to do was kind of like, prove to the business that we can actually provide additional value beyond what was considered at that time, which is basically, you know, a bunch of designers kind of scattered out throughout the company on multiple floors. And, you know, and from a consumers perspective, you know, a pm would come over and say, hey, I want to do something on homepage with a pop up or something. And that was it, right? It was very visual is very kind of like cut and dry. And try to evolve that into something where that the value in design is much more than that, and going to, you know, the actual, you know, the thought process, the actual structures we put in place in the processes and kind of really trying to challenge that and I think that's kind of one one day, or is that that originally hit me when when I joined a team.
Nahum Yamin 04:21
It's interesting, I actually didn't know that you joined as an IC. So originally, this was an IC role?
Dynin Khem 04:26
Yeah, Originally, it was kind of like, we don't really need design managers, or at the time there was no concept of design manager, you just kind of have like a bunch of designers in a room. So yeah, for me, as IC is just really kind of proving out, you know, just for the foundations of like, you know, how how the design critiques work, how do I walk through design work with PMS and kind of establishing that once I was able to earn kind of like trusts from an IC level, I was really definitely able to push my agenda in terms of like, okay, let's build something much more stronger in terms of design or care, and that's kind of where we started, you know, moving from
Nahum Yamin 05:08
was that like an easy transformation or was challenging in the beginning?
Dynin Khem 05:11
I think at the time, it was clear that we needed to do something with the design team, especially at that time, you know, was it 2015, where I think every big was, you know, very, pretty much kind of like with their first three, or their first big redesign. And, you know, I think they were setting the standard in terms of travel. And I think that was pressuring, you know, a lot on calling more to the OTAs that we have in the industry like booking.com. And Agoda as well, in terms of like, Oh, we actually need to bring good design to the table, especially when other companies are kind of pushing for it on that, on that kind of like edge, that leading edge. Right. And we knew we had to do something, but we didn't know exactly what, So, you know, and it was just kind of kind of started.
Nahum Yamin 05:58
Did you know that you're going to grow the team to be that large? Or?
Dynin Khem 06:03
No, I think, you know, when I looked, you know, I talked to Candidates today, or, you know, kind of reflecting back and Candidates asks me Oh, how big is the team? Oh, they are, you know, we're roughly 47 to 50 people. In my mind, I still do feel like we're small, but you know,
Nahum Yamin 06:17
And its quite big now
Dynin Khem 06:18
Yeah, it's definitely a big team, right. And it's kind of like the growth from going from just five people to 50. You know, and throughout the years, you've been there too, in terms of, you know, all the all the challenges, but also collecting new capacities that each level unlocked. Right. So, you know, if I looked at the team, previously to the team today, you know, we definitely grew from more of like a, like a tribal team, meaning that we all sat together, we're less than 10. People, everyone knows kind of going on. But then now as we evolve to be a larger team of 50 people as much, the problems are different from that, that time, when you're small, it's very easy to understand what everyone's working on, right? It's just, it's just you just walk around, you're, you're almost done. However, now, at 50, you don't know what's going on anymore. Even though I sit next to you, actually, I seat next, across the Nahum, but I actually don't know what he's doing day to day, right? And because, you know, everyone's you know, going 00 to 60, every week, and before we get a lot of stuff happens, right? So now the problems or challenges are much different from beginning where it's much more about, okay, what are the collaboration processes in terms of like, critiques? And how do we get everyone in terms of alignment and things like that. So it's a, it's definitely a different role today than previous.
Nahum Yamin 07:42
So what like, kind of example of challenges of back then compared to today?
Dynin Khem 07:46
Yeah I would say, in the, in the early days, you know, when a team's like, less than 15 people, you know, back to the work against, like, it's, you don't really need a design system, honestly, you kind of like know, who has the master file for search home, whatever. Whereas today, you know, the design system becomes much, much more important in terms of the glue. And the complications of, you know, we have 20 different designers trying to change different features, or, or add your own thing to like, the search page, for example. So the challenges are a lot different. And from like, understand, like, who has the master file to more of like, there's not really a master file, it's, it's, it's, it's more trying to plan around exactly how we figure out how to collide different experiments, or prevent collisions for different experiments. So is this kind of one example.
Nahum Yamin 08:40
There's also challenges for communication? I assume
Dynin Khem 08:43
Yeah communication, you know, especially for for, for the teams, right? Previously, I would say, it's, you know, it's a lot more family feeling like, you know, we celebrate birthdays, we buy cake, and, you know, all this, all this community stuff but now its a lot harder. Um, you know, because just honestly, it's like a birthday every week. You know, especially given the size of the team. So, the community aspect is a little bit less than, than its before, you know, we still have our, our, you know, rituals, or, you know, I think our original team ritual was basically we had a Christmas event, you know, we do our white elephant, exchange gifts that, you know, that's still in existence, but it's much, much harder to take people out to lunch, you know, instead of taking three people out to lunch now to take out 50 people and now we have to break that up into pair managers, soldiers, less cohesiveness across the teams, but in, you know, in pockets of the team start to start to build their own sites. Yes, definitely. The community aspect is something that I don't think we quite solved, but you know, it's it's definitely a different challenge than then when the team is smaller.
Nahum Yamin 09:47
And looking back, this is the way you envision how the team would grow or you had to adjust some of your plans or
Dynin Khem 09:52
no, I would say, in my mind, I was like, okay, we had to grow but it was not planned. I was like, You Yeah, we're gonna go to the team 250. Right. I think if I said that, in the beginning, I think, you know, Omri would probably been like, yeah, you're crazy, right? The original plan was just to kind of like, okay, we don't we know, we need to mature to team. So let's hire good people. Right. And that was like the first kind of like the there was really no hard cap on the the number of people who just kind of kind of go as we go. So I think one of the keys, especially growing the team was that really investing into the hiring process, making sure that we're bringing in very strong people, but also like people who are, you know, just are willing to learn and adapt quickly, right? Especially, especially when it comes to recruiting. In Asia, you know, the, the industry design entry itself is a lot younger than, like, I would say, the industry or the market. For example, in the US, for example, in the US, you know, there's, there's, there's tons of startups, there's people, you know, working in startups, and they work at a big company and didn't, you know, kind of the next thing, whereas in Asia, it's a lot more kind of younger, meaning that, you know, we just have, you know, kids are still in school for or coming out, which is visual backgrounds, or visual degrees or more towards the graphic design, and people are kind of interested in getting into more into product design. So as those people are in, are starting to become more and more interested in product design, it's, it's up to us to kind of figure out, okay, you know, we can't hire like super senior people all the time. So we have to take, you know, more of a risk or chance on these people who will have ability to learn quickly, and transform into, you know, what we traditionally call a product designer or UX designer today,
Nahum Yamin 11:46
how do, you mentioned talking with Omri? How did you like justify convinced him that this is the direction that we need to go?
Dynin Khem 11:54
Yeah, you know, it's really, it was really just kind of earning that trust in the beginning of, of like, Hey, we need these, we need this, you know, as we grow, and it made more sense, right? So, you know, going back to your earlier question in terms of planning, it wasn't really like, okay, we're gonna go to 50, we're gonna hire five managers, we're gonna have five people per team, it was it was like that it was kind of, kind of, okay. This year, we probably need like, five people in the following years, like, Oh, we actually need eight people because of the new project and stuff coming in. And all of a sudden, like, Oh, actually, we have too many people now. Now, we need to introduce additional layer management, people manager aside, and, and that wasn't like, you know, it wasn't something planned out. It was just kind of, like organically happened as, as we will, as we progress forward.
Nahum Yamin 12:51
And on a personal level, as the team grows, do you have to get to to have like, new skills or new traits to learn?
Dynin Khem 12:57
Yeah, it was definitely, you know, I would say, especially, you know, for me, personally, you know, as I, as I said, earlier, I started as IC, but I definitely move into management, then all the way into the director level. However, I would say I went through all the levels through Agoda, right. And I would say, especially moving to people management, it's definitely a different role. Right. In the beginning, as IC, I think it's really catered towards me doing good work. And now it's now especially at my level now is, how can I find good people who do good work, but also how can empower people, meaning designers to do good work? Right? Or do their own to do great work? Right? So that's kind of kind of the shift, right? So it's more about not necessarily providing my own craft through my own hands, but enabling other people to do good work through through kind of like direction and just providing space and the environment where they can actually align with the business, but also feel like they're contributing from impacts.
Nahum Yamin 14:07
And how did your day to day job, now changed during the years?
Dynin Khem 14:11
the day to day job? You know, now it's more about really about translating what we do as a design team. To a business audience, honestly, it's really, you know, I think as designers, we we get each other, you know, we know, we do design critique, you know, like the other day, we were talking about, like whitespace, and a type ramp, and you know, all this design stuff. However, you know, that stuff doesn't, when you try to talk to it with someone who is from a business background, much more analytical, they don't get it, right. They only get hard numbers, right. So really a big part of my job is how do I connect these design values that we believe strongly believe in into business value, right? And how do I communicate that in a way where You know, business stakeholders can get it. Right, right versus like, this looks good, too. Oh, this is a reason why we chose this direction, or why we need to go change this design, to I some kind of business, recommend a recommendation that we have from our side. So it's really about trying to translate that in a way that that business owners understand.
Nahum Yamin 15:24
Can you give maybe an example of the translation?
Dynin Khem 15:27
Yeah, so I was say, for example, yesterday, we, you know, when we're looking at our app today, I think it's clear that our app is is quite functional. And what we're looking to do is shift to more a emotional or more kind of, like, inspiring direction for the app. Right. So you know, a lot of is individual language. So, you know, how can I have a successful meeting where, you know, what a business audience to say, these other rationales we are exploring. And this is kind of why it makes sense that rationale. So there's the story side design, but there's also, I think, especially an analytical business world, being able to pull in data is very valuable, right? Any kind of data like, so basically, instead of just going into meetings with the three stories that we had, so, you know, basically, we took the concepts, and then we just ran A B tests against kind of like our bar, which is one of the competitors, and then kind of like all constantly original, asking regular customers, which one do you which one do you believe is more beautiful this one or this one? Right, so then, you know, I was able to call it all that, that results into one slide, and basically start with that slide and say, This is how our customers receive these concepts. So is actually an additional data point to help kind of like shape the narrative to be something where the business owners can actually trust us more in terms of like, oh, not only did we bring the designs, but we also try to vet it, you know, through really, really lightweight, or research those, it's just really trying to build that business story. And it's just rationale, right? So it's kind of kind of one example,
Nahum Yamin 17:21
And these business skills are something that you intuitively intuitively picked up or, you had to learn it somehow or
Dynin Khem 17:28
I would say, it's kind of evolved, right? And beginning, you know, you know, I think I was naive, I was like, Oh, yeah, to be a good design leader, you just had to be super good at design, right. However, you know, as I kind of grew into a role, it became something where it was very clear that it's not about just being a good designer, it's really about being someone who understood the needs of the business, but also 100 can translate design into something where the business understands, there's a lot of value. Right, right. So So basically, you know, you just have been through, you know, just kind of like the work that we do, you know, from all the big projects and products that we launched over the years. But also just, I think one thing I do personally a lot is actually I do like to connect back to the design community, either through conferences, or slack groups, or just other things like that. And, you know, definitely, the business of design is definitely a topic. And, you know, because a main topic, cuz I think a lot of teams are maturing, you know, they have design managers and design leaders in similar position where, you know, what's next, in terms of how to take the team to the next level? Right? And that's a common thing that comes up all the time. You know, when I'm engaged, in these discussions or debates, it's, it's the business, right? It's like, how can we communicate well, to the business, in their own language where, you know, they understand versus using jargon, right? And, you know, that's why, you know, I think last year, you know, we made a big push to really go into building our data curriculum for designers, not only knowing how to use data tools, such as SQL or all the internal tools we have, but also understanding how to structure but also how to how to ask the questions or the right questions we're looking for, right? I don't think we're looking to finish running SQL queries ourselves, but we're wanting to actually use understand enough data where we can actually ask the data science team or or data analysts to help us get the information. And I really do believe that it actually enabled us to be a lot more confident. Especially you know, I seen designers instead of just showing, you know, mock ups, they showed a mock up But also they bring the story plus the data on what influencing their decisions. And that makes the rationale more stronger. And I think this is something that is a tool for all designers to, to to keep pushing forward.
Nahum Yamin 20:14
And the more you're busy with business and data, do you miss the craft? Sometimes? Like, what is the last thing that you actually designed?
Dynin Khem 20:20
The last thing I ever designed, was honestly, PowerPoint slide. But, you know, I don't know what you call it design, but you know, trying to edit down information. But yeah, you know, I do miss the the craft of actually being able to sit there and really diving deep into the work itself and turns on solving. However it did. The design I do now is a lot different. It's more about organizational design, right? Or more like, just like people, you know, there's always a lot, there's almost like people stuff, right? So trying to design organization from the career ladders, kind of like the performance reviews, as well as the hiring process. You know, there's a lot of design work that goes into that, and it's a different kind of design is something that, you know, I definitely find interesting, very interesting. Now. And, you know, it's definitely different from from across.
Nahum Yamin 21:16
How did you know, this is the right path for you? I mean, if someone is listening now and they are on the crossroad, you know, deciding to continue with the craft or going into the management path?
Dynin Khem 21:25
I get this question a lot. So, you know, especially for like, designers who, all designers, we start as IC this kind of the way it is, right, right? And then you kind of reached a point where like, you know, you're senior, and then you're like, Okay, Should I continue, you know, being an IC? Or should I continue, or should I just try this people management thing. But I think about switching because, you know, our career paths are very cut and dry. It's like either people management or IC path, you know, maybe a hybrid role, but you know, there's something to be debated. But when you switch to a people management role, you kind of start from the beginning, from ground zero, like all this stuff that you ever did two years to get you to this position. Now, that doesn't really matter anymore. Because it's different skills, you're not gonna like design your way into, you know, like a one on one, right? It's, it's very much different. It's, you know, it's also all the skill sets, you're doing the soft skills, the just trying to negotiate with stakeholders, but also, protecting your designers and all that you just kind of have to learn. And especially when people are looking to get into people management, you know, I'll say just try it. Right, you just try it, and you just only way, you know, we know, we have a couple case cases. I know, personally, but also on the team recently, you know, we had a we had a first time design manager who switched over from IC, you know, he did it for a year and you know, I came to the end of it is like, Hey, I don't think this is for me. I want to go back to to ice and I think that's okay, that's perfectly fine. It's actually very mature to think of it that way. Right? Because normally people will be like, you know, I just not working, so I'm just going to quit, but you realize, like, oh, what's the real root problem? real root was that he didn't enjoy the people manager aspect. And he missed the craft side. And yeah, that's okay. And I think that realization is needed to be made. And, you know, and, and you should make it. The other thing is that, you know, how are you going to get these opportunities, right? It's not like, you're like, Okay, here's first time manager, here's 10 people to manage, right? It's not gonna be fun. But so there's things you can do right through mentorships. Right through in terms we have interns through just kind of like, that kind of self management, I think kind of like, will expose you enough to be like, Oh, actually, this is something I like to do, or actually, this is something I don't want to do. So, you know, it's definitely, you know, I think if people are interested, they should just try the kind of like, the mentorship route to just see what is the like to try to help or give someone advice to, you know, move or solve certain problems. Right.
Nahum Yamin 23:59
So, switching to talk about the future, like, what are the challenges now to bring the design to the next level of maturity? Our design team?
Dynin Khem 24:06
Yeah, I would say, you know, especially now, you know, we're, you know, how we talk about, okay, what's the next level of maturity? You know, getting closer to the data is one, right, right. But then like, Okay, once we get close to data analysis, now, now, what else? Right, I think really, for us is, it's, we're trying to kind of build our skill sets, you know, being very, very strong in terms of sensitive data, being able to translate or communicate strongly in a business setting. But also, I think those two items make us strong, but then it'll kind of amplifies the other side, which is the designer side that we bring. Right. Right. And I think something that's, that's that that we should push or, you know, as we were maturing to next level, is it okay to craft right the the quality aspect, right. So I think it's very easy for us to We kind of lose sight of that, especially, you know, especially in a, in a business environment, such as Agoda, which is extremely data driven, you know, all of our decisions are grounded in data, we run, you know, you know, hundreds of experiments a week, and as easy to kind of like, just let the data just drive us. Whereas I think now when we become very comfortable with the data, very comfortable with, you know, articulating to the business, now we can able to push, like, things that we believe from a design side, right, in terms of quality, or craft or animations, whatever, right? And to something where we feel much more balanced than than what we have today.
Nahum Yamin 25:41
Are you facing new problem? Or are these the same problem, just bigger scale?
Dynin Khem 25:47
Interesting, definitely new, newer problems, right? the new problems of, of how to move, how to kind of like, you know, not disrupt the flow of the team, but also how to do these things where we're constantly iterating on the team and the process and everything to kind of like, nudge forth in the right. in the right direction. We feel right. But also the older problems of you know, of legacy. Right. Right. of, you know, we're used to doing it just one way, why are we trying to change it? Right? So that's, that's where we introduce new challenges. So, you know, it's a, it's, it's a process, right? Like, product, we experiment, we try stuff is work, if it works, we need to change course, or of course, correct. Same thing, with our design or right we we try certain things doesn't work. Maybe we try other things. So it's, you know, it's definitely, constantly constantly, it's never, never stable, is always evolving, changing. Right.
Nahum Yamin 26:50
So let's say someone is listening now, and they would like to join our team, what kind of designers are we looking for? And who will be potential hire to join us?
Dynin Khem 27:00
Yeah, I think one thing that, you know, when I reflect on the team is that, in terms of of you how diverse we are, you know, I think we have over like, 17 different nationalities, just on a design team alone. I think that's pretty cool, right? It just kind of happened is not like we went out and said, you know, we need one person from this place. And that place, it just just happened. And I would say that, you know, I think especially for people looking to, or talking to people looking to join Agoda, I would say, you know, definitely, you know, on a personal on a professional side, it's kind of stuff into environment, where we believe in impact through data, meaning, meaning that we can actually prove of how we're impacting the business. And I think that's very interesting from just such a process standpoint. But also, the other side of just not being able to design for these markets were extremely fragmented, especially Southeast Asia is the other challenge. Also, from personal side, not being able to, like live and work in Bangkok, you know, not many people can say that, and it's just, you know, the interesting, just adventure it can bring, right,
Nahum Yamin 28:14
so we are approaching the end of the show, and I want to maybe finish with asking, Where do you see the design team in three years from now? Or is it too too far away?
Dynin Khem 28:26
No, it's, you know, I, you know, design team should, you know, go beyond myself personally, mean that, you know, it's, it's, it's an organization where it, you know, it can survive, meaning that, you know, not a negative way, but just like, just just just like, there's a built in kind of like stability, right, you know, where we feel strong. And we feel that we're one of the premier teams, especially in Southeast Asia. And now we're all proud of, and I think that's kind of like the the goal, especially when we look back, you know, to say 3-4 years from now, right.
Nahum Yamin 29:07
Thank you, Dynin. for taking the time today to share this with us. It was a real pleasure to learn about the past and future of our team from your perspective.
Dynin Khem 29:15
Cool. Thanks Nahum, it was fun. And yeah, have a good day.
Nahum Yamin 29:19
Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoy this podcast, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you are listening, and share it with your friends and colleagues. Don't forget to subscribe to our show to get notified when we are releasing a new episode. And if you want to learn more about the work of the design team at agoda, visit agoda dot design. Thanks again for listening and hope to see you in our next episode.