Enterprise Email has come a long way from being just a tool for communication, to empowering users with a plethora of features that boost productivity.
Amit Patil, our next pathbreaker, Senior Design Manager at Microsoft India, leads 3 design teams within the Outlook Ecosystem which include Outlook, Bookings and Groups.
Amit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his diverse experiences, from working on interaction design of software products to designing experiences in the aviation space, and the privilege of designing for a product like Outlook which is at a different scale and level.
For students, don’t define too much of your career. Gather your strengths as you grow, try and understand your own self as much as you can. The more diverse experiences you have early on, the more confident you will be in handling situations in the future !
Amit, can you talk a little bit about Your background?
I was a normal kid living with my grandmother in south Mumbai, before I moved in with my parents in the suburbs. Growing up in Mumbai had its own advantages and struggles that shaped my identity. My grandmother has had a deep influence on me, particularly around the creative play she engaged me in. During my early school days, I remember creating the school newspaper and having an active interest in stage acting. Though I studied in a basic state board school, the influence of my peers and teachers has been helpful to this day. Sometimes I feel it’s not the brand associated with you but the people whom you get exposed to that makes all the difference in your confidence. The more varied and diverse people you get exposed to, the more resilient and aware you become.
My mom, being a maths and science teacher, instilled in me the much needed discipline to be persistent in my efforts at school. While I did manage to be one among the top ranks, I never came first and it didn’t bother me much. Infact I am glad that my focus on understanding things better rather than getting just good marks in exams enabled me to build foundations that I still benefit from.
My dad although being a govt officer tried his best to keep us engaged and curious. The stationary he used to get from office used to be of particular interest to me as a kid. Post his retirement, my dad chose to complete his law degree and it was a moment of inspiration for me and my sister seeing him study at that age to follow his dreams. We learnt that age is just a number and if you have a will there is always a way. He went on to practice in High court Mumbai for 10 years as a lawyer. Passion matters in the end and that’s what I saw in my sister’s determination too. She worked in the events industry and always aimed to start her own firm, and today she has been practicing on her own.
Staying in a house with so much of inspiration helped me push myself beyond what is, to what can be. Sometimes it’s easy to fall prey to stories of our existing reality, but the future has much more written for you.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my B.E. in Computers and Masters in Software and User Interface Design From NID. But there is a story behind this.
In my 12th boards, I couldn’t score the much needed percentage to get an easy admission into Engineering. As a kid I had a passion for computers and I always wanted to pursue something in computers, though my low PCM (Physics, Chemistry, Maths) score didn’t help serve the purpose.
Initially, for my score, all I was getting was Electrical, or Mechanical engineering. However, sometimes the universe does conspire with you if you wish too hard. I finally did get a computer engineering seat in Rajiv Gandhi Institute of technology, Versova. This was a big moment for me since my dad had put in most of his earnings to pay the fees for my course. Moreover, the proximity of the college to my house was a big benefit.
During college, I faced my first shock as I failed in an exam for the first time. My usual style of studying to just understand concepts was not working and I had to re-pivot to a better strategy. It was strange for me since I understood the subject but was never able to complete the exam in time. So, I pushed myself to clear 2 failed subjects along with the other subjects, and finally managed to clear all the subjects with good marks. Beyond academics, what really interested me in engineering was web design. Along with a classmate, I used to host the web-design competition for college fests, and that led me to being included in creating college festival branding posters and even creating the college website. But what remains with me as a story to tell was when we first hosted our college exam results on the website. Most results used to be put on notice boards back then, but we planned to upload results on the website. This was a big achievement for us as well, as it gave us satisfaction to have solved a big real world problem for the first time.
Once I got my Bachelors of Engineering in Computer science it was placements time for me. Even after being a placements coordinator I couldn’t get a job, while many of my classmates were already placed in good companies. This was a low period of my life until I finally got an opportunity with MAQ software as a software tester and UI designer. This was a big learning experience and it led me to my passion to study design.
When I appeared for the National Institute of Design (NID) entrance exam I didn’t quite know how big that place was. I merely tried to give it a shot because I saw a course in Software and User Interface Design at NID. But during the final rounds at the campus, I realized that it was a big deal. Infact, even after I got through the exams I didn’t know if I should go ahead and take it up. It was only when my then boss told me that it’s a big place and I shouldn’t rethink this opportunity that I did take it up.
The rest was history. What I learnt at NID not only changed my perspective about design, but also changed me as a person. All my childhood creative capabilities were finally coming into action and my batchmates were from various backgrounds like art, architecture and various engineering fields. This broadened my perspective about the world and helped me realize the potential and power of a design career. In fact, I would go on to say that design is not just a career, it’s a way of living.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
One of the key influencing factors for me to take up design as my career was my empathy towards the people around me. I was always excited to make the complex simple, and design gave me that opportunity. Some of my early influences was the work I did in my engineering college, particularly web design and solving for the needs of college students. While aesthetics was part of it, it was never the only motive, the idea was to provide an experience that makes people happy.
I haven’t had formal mentorship in this area, since I was the first one in my family to venture into this space. But the exposure I got on my first job as well as reading the book “Design of Everyday Things” made a big difference to my perspective of design.
As I progressed into design, some of my mentors including Sarit Arora who was one of my teachers, and M.P. Ranjan who taught us design, immensely influenced my thoughts about design. Other noted faculty at NID like Dr. Vidwans, Madhusudhan Mukherjee, Milindo Taid and Andreas Schneider helped me think beyond the obvious about design.
As discussed earlier, my entry into NID was not planned, though it helped me visit sites like “Boxes & Arrows” and keep myself exposed to global work around this area. After my post-graduation, my career took a big turn. I explored various types of opportunities and I particularly believe my work at IBM and Honeywell transformed me into a better designer.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
After my Engineering, I got a chance to work for a year at MAQ Software. This was a dual role as UI Designer and Software tester. This was my first exposure to the Microsoft universe, and it did influence my opinions about the scale of the company. We used to outsource some work for Microsoft back then.
After my post graduation I did my internship with HP Labs. This was an exciting time where I could explore gestures for early adolescent kids. Particularly since I got the opportunity to do on- field research as well as experiment with technology to build a solution for them.
With my curiosity, I continued with another internship with my professor Andreas Schneider in Japan. This was challenging yet helped me learn how things work beyond the classical definitions of design.
After coming back to India I joined the startup i-Become in Mumbai under Illumine. This is where I got the opportunity to work with IIM grads as the only designer. It was a lovely experience since we were working from scratch to define a career application with a twist. Back then Linkedin wasn’t that famous, and it was a thrill to do everything from scratch. I learnt how to handle the project across different stages in this company.
I happened to get my next challenge from Opera (Browser) India when I shifted to Chandigarh. I still believe this is the best city in India w.r.t. to its planning. At Opera, I worked on web widget experiences for the Opera browser and explored various interaction paradigms. In a small global team this was a short but delightful experience for me. Unfortunately they closed their operations in India and all of us had to move on.
Post Opera, I entered the big league of companies starting with IBM. At IBM, as part of the CIO’s( Chief Information officer) initiative, we were tasked with redesigning the IBM Intranet experience. It was a mammoth task and there was a global team for the same. As a part of the Information Architecture team with stalwarts like Keith Instone and Peter Ceplinksi , I was involved in redesigning the navigation for IBM Intranet globally. I learnt stakeholder management and the impact of design at scale across IBM.
After 2.5 years at IBM I got an opportunity to try out the unique domain of Aviation with Honeywell Aerospace. Although I was initially confused and didn’t really understand how I could create impact in a structured space like aviation, as I started working on multiple projects I got more and more interested in the same.
From designing experiences for aircraft engine maintenance professionals to working towards cabin management experiences for private jet flight attendants and pilots it was a thrill ride.
As part of the process, I also got to visit some of the hangers for user research, by understanding their day to day operations.Since aviation experience always puts safety first, it always kept me humble as a designer. Particularly, for a helicopter ambulance project, I got the opportunity to interview various stakeholders and understand the systemic impact of one design change. This particular work experience in Honeywell exposed me to design for the latest technologies, from Google Glass to Microsoft HoloLens. After around 5 years of being in the aviation field, I chose to move on.
This time around I got an opportunity within Honeywell itself to lead the HR Employee Experience team. We designed and audited HR services, processes and internal employee tools. This was slightly different from my earlier role, wherein I got exposed to strategic design and how policies and protocols get designed and implemented across the organization.
After many years of working at Honeywell, I had Microsoft knock on my door. This was a full circle for me since I started my career in MAQ Software working for Microsoft. Without a thought I jumped onto the Microsoft ship. This was a dream come true.
At Microsoft, I joined as an Individual contributor and started work on Workplace Analytics( Now Viva Insights), which was a niche software that was focused on providing people insights into organizational leadership. Over time I was given the team to lead this and the MyAnalytics product. Shifting to a people management role was exciting and yet came with a lot of responsibilities.
I continued to work on strengthening my team and my current managerJaywant Tiwari enabled me to grow into this role. As a team we worked on multiple pitches and features which got launched globally in Microsoft conferences. We even got opportunities to pitch to senior executives of the company. Through all these experiences, my respect for our super talented team grew multi-fold. Sometimes, as a manager, you learn a lot from the amazing designers who put in their heart and souls to create the user experience magic.
Post that, I got an opportunity to lead the MS Outlook team in India which happens to be my current role
How did you get your first break?
I got my first break through multiple interviews. I didn’t clear many interviews because of lack of confidence or skills in the early days.
My first break for my internship was through one of my faculty who shared the opportunity with me, when I wrote to him as a request for an internship. While my first break for a job was with a startup named Illumine Knowledge Labs again through broadcasting my portfolio to all the contacts I got from my college.
A fun fact is that I interviewed with Microsoft thrice before I finally got lucky. One thing that matters when you are starting out is to have a “never give up” attitude, unfathomable positivity, self-belief and a curiosity to learn.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: One of my biggest challenges in life was when Opera India shut down and I did not have a job for some time. Infact, it was a time when I was deeply in self doubt and had no idea how I would get out of it.
However, I put on my engineering hat back then and relentlessly planned my next move. I even started doing freelance work by the side for 3 months. What really kept me going was my belief that I can make a difference and eventually I got an opportunity with IBM.
Challenge 2: One other big challenge for me was when I entered Honeywell. I was given a project that required a lot of reading and understanding of technical details. As a designer, I could have shirked away from it but I realized the impact of the work I was doing and it led me to putting in the extra hours to design the experience with the team.
Challenge 3: At Honeywell, when I was given a project to work on a device like Google Glass which was not out there yet, it was really difficult for me to imagine how people would use the device. With little documentation we had, the challenge was to come up with new designs for the end user. My love for technology helped and I made sure that I worked with the development team to design these experiences. I have since then realized that best things happen when you work with people rather than alone.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work for Microsoft India as a Senior Design Manager where I lead the MS Outlook team in India.
Designing for a product like Outlook is at a different scale and level, particularly due to the fact that the team is global and the product is used everyday by millions of users across the world. There is no scope for half hearted experiences, every design needs world class craftsmanship and unbiased customer centricity.
Currently I lead 3 teams within the Outlook Ecosystem in India, this includes Outlook Groups, Microsoft Bookings and the Mobile web version of Outlook. And all this is possible only because of amazing designers on my team who inspire me each passing day.
My everyday responsibilities as a manager range from giving directions around experiences being designed, unblocking design efforts for the team, executive updates and resource management including onboarding new members to the team, to assigning work to the right designer as well as making sure that they are not overburdened with work. I also get the privilege of coaching the team and working with them to do fun activities including brainstorming new ideas and working with Designers, Researchers, PMs and Developers to transform these ideas into real products which end users can use in their day to day lives.
Most of the time we are trying to solve problems around Time Management and Communication for Information Workers. We are constantly thinking of how to make these experiences meaningful and seamless for our end users and make them better over time.
Beyond Microsoft I keep myself engaged in teaching as a visiting faculty at my alma mater NID and some other design colleges. The problem or the opportunity I see in this role is to enable collaborative learning in colleges. I have been privileged to learn from amazing faculty or peers, I want to make sure that tier 2 or 3 colleges also benefit from the same. Most of the times the challenge as a teacher is to plan the curriculum in a gradual manner. Adding experiential assignments as well as mixing it with theory is the goal so that the students are engaged till the end of the course.
What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?
Designing Global products requires perseverance and a need to be user advocates. You need to be the user’s voice in the room while also making sure the product is beneficial as a business. It also requires managing stakeholders with a varied set of opinions and point of views and yet aligning with them to make things happen.
What’s a typical day like?
As a design manager my day is full of meetings. I generally start my day with preparing for meetings, with a quick glance of the people and agenda of the meetings for the day, after which I make sure I take notes during the meeting to help articulate my thoughts and the thoughts in the room. It also helps me reflect by the end of the day or the week on how I helped the work items grow forward. A good amount of my time also goes in talking to my team in enabling them and removing any blockers for the same.
What is it you love about this job?
I love the impact I get to create across the world and make people’s lives simpler. Particularly the fact that one small change can mean saving hours of time, for people who use our software everyday.
How does your work benefit society?
Email is used across the world in multiple contexts. From congratulatory messages to medical news, from love letters to offer letters and from advertising newsletters to minutes of meetings. Making these and many such experiences seamless is the benefit I see from the work I do.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
As part of the Viva Insights global team we worked on the pitch to create software that helps information workers and their organizations balance their work and life. I particularly feel that work is very close to me because it looks at the human side of software usage.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Don’t define too much of your career. Gather your strengths as you grow, try and understand your own self as much as you can. Think about what challenges you are ready to handle rather than what positions or titles you want to be in. Also have fun on the journey, because while the destination may or may not come to you, the journey is right here with you.
I love teaching and do it as my side hustle at times. Teaching helps me strengthen my fundamentals and also helps me interact with young minds who will be tomorrow’s talent. Maybe sometime in future I would love to do this full time to give back to society what the society has given me.