Collaboration

The key to bridging the designer-developer gap, according to The New York Times’ tech lead

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Mar 3, 2020
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The daughter of molecular biologists, Natalya Shelburne grew up believing the arts and sciences were deeply connected. In college, though, she gravitated toward the liberal arts, majoring in fine arts and psychology after being told that she was too creative—and too good with people—to work with computers.

Now, Natalya, has the best of both worlds, leading a team of engineers at The New York Times. A large part of her success has come from her recognition that the scientific method is both analytical and creative, and her ability to embrace being multidisciplinary.

On the latest episode of The Design Better Podcast, Natalya talks about her experience overcoming the unnecessary dichotomy between arts and sciences and the problem tech will face if it continues to perpetuate these myths.

Ultimately, people are curious and crave being multidisciplinary and learning outside of their comfort zone, she says.

“That’s something that as an educator that’s understood, but for some reason a lot of people in tech fight it,” says Natalya, who has past experience working as an art director for a nonprofit.

If she was told not to go into tech because she was good with people, she questions how many people were encouraged to get technical jobs because they weren’t self-aware or empathetic early in life, and what kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that fuels.

“Expectations shape reality and people are finding that we’re kind of not expecting more of them,” she says.

For example, when engineers hear they’re not creative enough to step outside of code, we’re saying we don’t expect them to innovate and push past their limitations. When designers are told their artistic minds can’t grasp the logic of engineering, we’re accepting the minimum of usefully-designed products in the future. This limited way of thinking is harmful for design teams because it’s a creativity and productivity killer, she says.

“When you know when someone doesn’t respect you, there is no trust,” she says. “And when there’s no trust or autonomy, people don’t do creative work.”

The solution, she says, is to shift our thinking and see that the barriers we have in tech are completely arbitrary.

When it comes to the intersection of design and engineering, Natalya says that at The New York Times, the designers she works with are deeply thoughtful and collaborative, asking engineering what’s possible. Designers and engineers whiteboard together, and there’s a feedback loop of trust and inclusion.

“I get to say, ‘Yes, we can architect a system. I’m going to figure something out, we’re going to leverage this technology, we’re going to make something work, we’re going to make miracles happen.’”

Want to hear more of Natalya’s experiences? Listen to the full episode here—and remember to subscribe so you never miss a new release.

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