Designers / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Zach Walsh, Senior Design Manager at Zapier

Zach Walsh is the Senior Design Manager at automation software company Zapier, where he is focused on the company’s growth and core product areas.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I’m currently a Senior Design Manager at Zapier. We help folks make their lives a little easier and a little less busy by enabling them to automate their work.

I spend my time working with an incredibly talented group of designers in the growth and core product areas of our company.

I have been focused on product and user experience design for the breadth of my career. Before Zapier, I was the Design Director at PowerReviews, a company that creates software to collect and display product reviews on major ecommerce sites.

Previous to that I worked as a product designer at Orbitz where I did my best to make booking flights as painless as possible.

While doing the above, I also started a business called Shakoolie where we make and sell [sigh] shower beer koozies. It started as one of those random ideas but has really grown up over time.

What started out as a love for anything design at the University of Missouri has grown into a career that allows me to touch the lives of the customers and people I help build products for.

I’ve aimed to give people exceptional experiences even when they least expect it. To date, it has been immensely fulfilling.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Well, the pandemic has changed what a typical day looks like quite a bit, so I’ll speak to what things look like now-a-days.

I typically start the day with my wife and daughter. We wake up, all make our beds and start the day with breakfast/coffee/tea. This is also when things like laundry and emptying the dishwasher happen.

I have a hard time when things pile up at home so I like to do these types of things regularly. In the pre-covid world, I would take my daughter to school (a ritual I miss) after these morning activities.

Now, however, our summer babysitter comes and spends time with our daughter while my wife and I work.

Now, the workday itself. Being a manager, my day-to-day consists mostly of meetings and slack conversations with various folks from around the company. This time is spent usually in one of two camps:

Cross collaborators: At Zapier we have Engineering, Product, and Design leaders that manage each product development team (EPD Trio or Three-Legged Stool).

My Engineering and Product Director counterparts and I work to manage groups of those teams. I spend much of my day working and coordinating with them on product strategy, priority, and team health to ensure everyone has what they need to be effective.

We review work, give input, and call out when two teams should talk. We discuss process and what support needs to be in place so that teams can be successful.

We also work with other parts of the company like research, data, support, and marketing to coordinate efforts and keep each other informed of key priorities and milestones.

Functional collaborators: These are the designers. I’ll have one-on-ones with my direct reports, weekly design reviews, and time spent in slack talking about the details of our craft.

These conversations are largely functionally-oriented with topics including design process, career advancement, org building, and new and best practices.

Similar to the above, my main aim in this functional capacity is to ensure that the design org has what it needs to build great products. We need to have the proper mix of tools, systems, and spirit in order to build the best things we’re all proud of.

Meetings are a majority of the day, but I do proactively block out focus time wherever possible. This time is typically spent creating or circulating documents to express ideas, plans, or process.

Sprinkled into this day are elements of the Shakoolie business I mentioned. My partner and I trade off days to manage orders. I manage the contractors that we have to assemble product and fill orders so I am usually trading text messages to make sure we have what we need to keep orders moving.

When the work day is done, it’s time to switch modes. I am the cook in the family. I’ll make dinner while my wife and daughter set the table. We have a pretty regular routine of dinner, family time (movie, game, etc), bath time, and bed.

After my daughter goes to bed, that’s the miscellaneous time for my wife and I to work more, fit in some exercise, read, or just hang together.

Rinse and repeat.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Zapier is 100% distributed and we have employees around the globe. To that end, I have a little more control over my schedule than I did in a traditional office environment.

On lighter meetings days, I’ll try to use my lunch break to a run on the treadmill. Pre-covid, I’d often go to coffee shops to get a change of scenery. I have taken trips out of town where I am still able to work.

I have been working remotely for four years now. While not the sole factor, I do attribute my better management of work and personal life to being remote.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

To me, and I say this admitting that I am far from perfect at achieving this, the notion of work life balance comes down to two things: making your personal life a priority (I tend to always give importance to work) and being mentally present in what you’re doing—whether it be work or personal.

Prioritizing personal life – Our professional ambitions and expectations are a powerful force. In the US we have a society that celebrates intense work which reinforces this.

Adjusting one’s attitude to accept personal relationships, interests, exercise, and other personal goals as equally important can be challenging. However, until you do that (at least in my experience), balance will be very hard to achieve.

Being present – When you are at work, focus on work. Put your energy into that. When you are with family or friends, focus on that. Put your energy into that.

I am consistently challenged by switching gears. I drift off to work problems during family time or vice versa. However, I do try to be mindful and pay more attention to the happenings of the moment at hand.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I have been doing this longer than 12 months, but I find it incredibly helpful. Each week I have what I call my Weekly Setting.

After a Sunday run, I’ll look at my week and establish what I’d like to see happen by the end of the coming week. In order to make sure more than just work gets prioritized, I have four categories that I set goals for: Family, Work, Health, and Finance.

For each category, I pick one thing to focus on achieving for that week. Some weeks I nail all my goals.

Other weeks, I may only complete one of the things I listed. To me, the completion is less important than the ritual of figuring out what’s most important to put my energy towards.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

  • DesignBetter – A variety of perspectives from design, research, and ops folks from all sorts of companies.
  • Wireframes – Great stories from the design world.
  • How I Built This – The stories behind familiar companies both big and small.
  • Shoe Dog – Story of Phil Knight building Nike. I love hearing how modestly it began.
  • Eleven Rings – Phil Jackson’s retrospective on coaching. Understanding the spirit of his players and how they work together is a big part of his coaching philosophy. It contains many applicable lessons for being a manager.
  • Creativity, Inc – Deeply interesting look at the creative process and the bravery it often requires.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

I am lost without my weekly Trello Board. It’s where I do my weekly setting and plan out my week. I also can live without an unlined notebook and a black pen or marker.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

I don’t know that there’s anyone one person I’d choose. Reading experiences from those who are in similar situations to me is where I find the most insight.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

For me, I have found that achieving balance to be an explicit choice. It’s challenging. It’s imperfect. It ebbs and flows. While it often feels like it’s being made for us, we are the one who ultimately have to decide what’s important and what to prioritize.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.