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Benaz Irani: Product Design Manager At Open Table

7th December 2023 | 36 min 23 sec

Benaz Irani joins us to discuss her career journey from discovering user experience design during a study abroad program to leading product teams at Open Table today. She shares lessons learned from struggling with being a people pleaser early on and the importance of setting boundaries to grow in your career. Benaz opens up about the identity crisis she faced transitioning into management and not doing hands-on design work anymore. She finds inspiration from women leaders in tech and enjoys learning different leadership styles from her managers. Tune in to hear Benaz’s insightful perspectives on product design, personal growth, and leading teams in tech.

 

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Please note: This transcript is auto-generated and may contain slight errors.

Thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Digitally Diverse, where we do a deep dive into the careers and journeys of the influential tech and design leaders. Today we are joined by the lovely Benaz Irani, who is the product design manager at OpenTable. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you. Thank you for having me. So I guess I would love to start with hearing a little bit of an overview of where you’ve come from and your journey so far, just in case listeners don’t know who you are.

Sure. So where did I start? I feel like I’ve always been designing ever since I was young, back in the days when do you remember deviant art and making digital art? Yeah. So I wasn’t really playing in the playground or doing much sport, but I loved creating digital art, using photoshop and creating album covers.

That was the thing that I really liked. Love that. And then I come from an Indian Iranian household where it’s really common to pick the classic engineering, law, med background.

But something was calling me into the creative type. So I went to school and studied communications, design and business thinking to go into the route of advertising. Because I’m from Melbourne, it’s really big here, and that’s still such a creative space.

But then I just flipped. I did a study abroad semester in San Francisco throughout Uni for like, six months, and that just opened my eyes to the whole wonderful wacky world of tech and Silicon Valley. And so that was it from that on.

I came back to Melbourne after my semester abroad reached out to so many people, I wanted to change my whole career. Right? And so I was, like, reaching out for internships, asking questions like, what is UX? How can I do UX? UX wasn’t really a thing ish back then. It was just becoming a doing.

Like, I was just making stuff up kind of in my portfolio or tweaking internships to do that, but got there in the end. Moved back to San Francisco after I finished university. I just loved it so much.

San Francisco is great. There’s a lot of unique people with a lot of big ideas. And I was like, 22, I think.

Yeah, 22, 23. So it was just a really great time for learning. Learning about myself, learning about UX.

I then joined UX consultancy job straight out of school. And because I didn’t study UX, that was, like, my place to figure out the foundations of what design is. That was really brutal and tough.

I loved it. But chucked in the deep end. It was thrown in the deep end.

Yeah. If anyone knows, working for an agency and then also learning what UX is at the same time, it was a lot. But I’m really grateful for that experience because that then, I guess, put me where I am today.

I moved in house with OpenTable and I’ve been at OpenTable for nearly six years, which is an age for a lot of designers and for a lot of people in tech. Yes, exactly. But I swear it’s wild.

I can’t believe it’s already been six years. I’ve grown so much in the company. I love the company, I love the people there.

And yeah, throughout that time, I moved into management. I think it’s been nearly two and a half years, three years in management now. Nice.

It just goes so fast. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess. Oh, that’s great.

Well, for people who aren’t familiar with Open Table and what you do there, can you give us a brief overview? Yeah, and it’s really common. Most people think that Open Table, if you do know Open Table is just a classic, like reservations, like, as a diner, I can book a reservation. And so that was always what I knew.

But then when I started at Open Table, there’s a completely massive other side, and that’s really helping our restaurants. So though you see, like, the diners can book a reservation, but what we actually provide to restaurants is a lot of different software to help them run really smooth operations. So most of our teams are really working on really complex B to B enterprise problems to really help restaurants.

And so my role at Open Table, I manage the core line of business, which is table management software and reservations. So we’re just thinking about how can we make restaurants have smooth operations when you’re in service, who’s standing, who’s making sure people are coming in, how many people are sitting at the table at certain different amounts of time. I mean, I’m just like skimming the surface.

The amount of complex problems that restaurants have to solve for, it’s really hard. And I feel for restaurants today, we’re constantly thinking about with COVID that really changed dining behaviors. Definitely.

Right. I love eating out. I was not eating out anymore.

And so that was massive for them. Not only have they dealt with new dining behaviors, but what now restaurants are facing are the after effects of that, which is high food costs, staff shortages, and just in general, inflation. And so these are things that, as a company, we’re thinking about.

And I think it’s just such an exciting, interesting time. It always is to solve for food tech especially, because it’s something that I love. I don’t cook as much, but I eat out for everyone, I guess.

Yeah, you’re right. The times where people or companies are thrust into a really weird, unexplainable, unpredictable time is when a lot of that really gritty problem solving has to happen in the moment. And I guess because OpenTable is an international brand as well, do you just cover the Australian Arm or are you also working on projects that are like, global? How does that actually so OpenTable? We treat ourselves as a global company, and so all of our products and our features are know, we always think about different locales.

We are primarily based in the US. Majority of our customers are there, our headquarters are there. I actually started out in San Francisco with then, you know, came back to Australia after COVID and not only did I move back to Australia but a whole team dispersed around America but also like globally as well.

I did the big move, I jumped from America to Australia but a lot of people just went from San Francisco and they moved throughout. So this whole new world has changed how the way we work. But we still as a team and as a company we are constantly thinking about all our different locations.

So our team like I manage a few designers in Australia, but a lot of my designers that I manage are in the US and Canada. And so though we’re spread out, we’re super tight knit. We’re based in Australia, US, London, Canada.

I mean, I think that’s just like a little bit but we think of us as a global team. Love that all the time zones. That must be fun.

Yeah. I’m tired. So what would you like to tell the audience about the culture at Open Table? It sounds like you guys are really collaborative considering that you’re working across the globe, so anything that jumps out to you.

Yeah. So apart from us being spread across the world, but being tight knit, I think one of the things that I’ve reason why I’ve been at open table for so long is just like, we’re so passionate about food and restaurants, and at the end of the day, I think that a lot of us are just like foodies. We’re just like food obsessed people and the people that love food, we have that like minded interests.

But I also feel like in a world know, we’re around a lot of tech and especially Open Table headquarters are in San Francisco. In my time I’ve met a lot of techie people but I really just found the people at OpenTable just so freaking humble. Like no egos.

We’re kind of like a family. The company isn’t a medium size so we’re not really large that we get extremely corporate, but we’re not small that there are some people there that can lead us and that are really inspiring as well. So if I had to summarize it, I just find we’re very humble, like minded people.

I love that and you’re so right. When a company does grow quite quickly or it does get to that really big size where you feel like you’re just a cog in a machine, sometimes you do miss that touch and something like in an industry such as hospitality, you really do need that person to person vibe still, so no, that sounds great. I’d be curious to hear a little bit more about your university experience.

You mentioned that you went to Uni what was the thought process behind going into the degree that you did? Well, first of all, there was no like I mean, the thought process was I had to go to university because I come from family, where the thought of not going to university was never an option, and because I was the only one that went the creative route. I was balancing this thing in me where I was like, I love this creativity side where I was creating my digital art, but I still loved I did a lot of maths in high school, and that logical side. So I was struggling to pick what to decide on, and I actually found this double degree at Swinburne.

They did a communications design, which is graphic design, and a business degree. And so it was a double degree. So it was four years instead of but, like, I look back at the time, what was I doing? I was meeting a lot of people, partying and doing all that fun stuff, but just being exposed to that creativity side.

I really loved my university. To be fair, I don’t think that I can apply much of what I learned at university, but very technically but that creativity side of university, I really miss. I remember we were making videos out of dirt from the playground, and you had to make, like, a stop motion video and just like, stuff like that that we never get to do anymore.

But I actually feel like we should find ways to apply that still in our work today. So I look back and I’m like, that was really fond memories, and that opened me up to going on a semester abroad and finding my way in UX. But if I had to do anything again today, it’s so amazing that now there are actually UX University courses.

Right. I was blown away when I found that out a few months ago that I found that some universities are now running it, because I was really feeling like I needed that in my degree when I started to figure out that’s what I wanted to go. So it’s exciting to see it just become more accessible.

Definitely. And you’re right. I feel like a lot of the people who find themselves in UX, they really do have the perfect blend of wanting to be quite logical married with the creativity.

And UX just seems like a perfect blend of that because it’s data driven design at the end of the day. So, yeah, it is a good blend of that. Was there a particular catalyst or a particular event that made you really interested in getting into Tech or getting into UX? What kind of started that? I think it’s a balance of me, and maybe I was studying business, but I just love reading how businesses decide to make decisions.

And I always would read, business fails. What’s going on? And why did they tank? For a certain reason specifically right now, I am very much following the stuff that’s going on with Threads and Instagram and Twitter. I’m reading all about it and I’m reading about why know, like, how he’s been reacting to it.

And if you can see right, like, Twitter is going down in a way right now because of what’s happening with Threads, stuff like that always interested me. And so I didn’t realize until I actually started to get into UX that UX is such a big part in how a business is run. And so it goes back to my time when I was in San Francisco that semester abroad.

I was just meeting a lot of people, and a lot of people were kind of getting into a lot of startups or people that just had their business ideas and they always needed like, a UX designer. And I was like, literally, I’ll talk to one guy that was running a business and it was just him by himself, and he wanted a UX designer. And I didn’t realize, I was like, why we just push the pixels.

We can make a website look pretty. And they were like, no, I need you to think about the users and what my business can actually do. And so that’s when I realized that, whoa, UX design is way bigger than just pushing pixels.

We can define the strategy as well. So that really was like the light bulb moment. Yeah, I think that’s so important to highlight that even now, there’s still so much value placed on design in places like those tech hubs like Silicon Valley I know in Berlin, London, their UX culture is so strong and so much priority is placed on that position.

So it’s really interesting to hear that that’s kind of what got you into it. Like, realizing how much importance it could have on a platform. So what advice would you give to someone, perhaps someone who is in a similar position to you, where they’re wanting to get into tech or get into UX? Is there any pathways that you’d recommend or any advice that you’d give? Yeah, it’s a tough one, but an exciting one.

Before I go into the advice, I’ll tell you how I felt when I was first starting out in the industry. As I said, when I moved to San Francisco, I just finished university. I had no UX full time jobs at all.

My portfolio was just made up of random internships that I tweaked into UX. So portfolio was kind of just like made up, which is fine, by the way. Yeah, I would love more people to literally just make up their own projects and just yeah, portfolio should show your skill and it doesn’t have to be real.

Yeah, really touch on or tweak it into what you would have done. Exactly. Another thing.

Yeah, it doesn’t have to be like a proper company, or it could just be like, ask your grandma about give me a name of some travel company and I’ll make them a website. Literally. Just be that actually, you reminded me, I asked my mom and my aunties, they were my user segments for something.

Yeah, use family for research. Yeah, just like utilize the things around you. Sorry, I digressed.

Please continue. No, I could talk about portfolios forever, but I had three months to get a job before I got kicked out, before I needed to get sponsored for a visa. Right? So there was a timeline.

So I really feel when designers are hustling right now because that’s what I had to do. I had a spreadsheet and I’m sure that’s what a lot of people are doing right now, spreadsheet and just like a list of companies and you’re going down the list and tackling them and tracking the statuses. That was my full time job.

And I really feel that what really helped me and the advice that I would give to the designers in that situation is just don’t be afraid to annoy people and slide into their DMs. I get some people messaging me on LinkedIn, but back in the day, I was sending like 20 people emails and LinkedIn messages and I was finding their work emails to say I wanted to apply for a job. I would find their work email and then I would send them a personalized work email.

I’ve been hiring at OpenTable for a while and I see designers do different things. Some of them will just apply online. Some of them will reach out to me on LinkedIn, some of them will email me directly or some will go through my coworkers and then come towards me.

And I fully respect the hustle. And so if you are going to send me a personalized email, a LinkedIn message, I will see it. I am busy, but maybe I won’t respond right away.

I think people get so bogged down when they don’t get a reply from someone. But just be patient. And if you send 50 emails to 50 people, you’ll get one response.

And even if it’s just for coffee, but it does take time. And I just think keep reaching out. I think there’s a lot of people in my position that want to help out and so something will stick.

Yeah, I think that’s so important. The thing that I’ve it is really hard when you’re a student or when you’re just starting out because you feel like you need to know everything. And the pressure, the impostor syndrome is so big, where you just don’t want to reach out to those leaders because it just feels so intimidating.

But one thing that I’ve really realized with having this podcast, and also just in general, people like to help, people want to talk about the experience and they want to lend a hand. And yes, you might not have the time to get back to them straight away, but as a newbie in the industry. What’s the worst that can happen with you sending out this email or this LinkedIn message? The worst thing that they can do is say no or they’re not going to write back.

It’s fine. And you’re right. Everyone just respects the hustle and you’re trying to do what you got to do.

So. Yeah, I love that. Exactly.

Keep up the hustle. And I still do that personally. So when I transitioned into management a few years ago, I was like, I have no idea what I’m doing.

I was just overwhelmed with everything. It was basically a completely new job position. And so I reached out to I just went on LinkedIn, saw the people that I was really inspired by, and sent them all messages.

I think I sent like probably like ten LinkedIn messages to different managers and I got a few calls and I basically just met with them. Then I kept an ongoing relationship with a few of them. It’s been great.

ADP List is a huge now we’ve got that you can just go on that website and you don’t even need to ask anymore. You’ve got like a list of people who are willing and ready to help. I love yeah, I’m a huge advocate for that.

And it’s really interesting that you brought in how you transitioned into management and having that mentorship. What was the biggest challenge with you transitioning from just being a designer and on the tools all the time to then moving into the management side of things? Yeah, I’m not going to lie. The first six months was a roller coaster of identity.

I had identity crisis because I was always like a designer. I love my craft and now I’m no longer on the tools anymore. How do I define success? How do I make sure that I’m helping my team? And so I would say what helped me was really talking to all the different types of leaders, reading a lot, I read a lot of books that I can always recommend around leadership.

But I feel like for me, the challenges were not being on the tools. And what is a productive day? A normal productive day of a designer is like, I just did these great user flows and for me, a productive day would mean I’ve had like three one on ones with my direct reports and I feel like they’re on the right track. Yeah, you’re right.

Changing that mindset, that daily schedule, and that the checklist changes a lot. And that’s great that you knew to surround yourself with people that could help you in that moment. That’s something that people at every stage of their career can find huge value in, not just people who are beginning to get into autotech.

So, yeah, thanks for sharing that. So I guess touching on that, have you had any speed bumps or anything that you can think of that’s come up with you and your career challenges that you feel like has shaped your career and what it looks like right now. Yeah, I would say there’s a few, but the one that I always come back to is one of the skills that I’ve had to really focus in on and grow throughout the years is stop being a people pleaser.

We could all do that. I think we could all do that, especially there’s definitely catered to certain people, especially certain women, different backgrounds, but naturally, straight up, I am a people pleaser. I sometimes call myself a recovering people pleaser because I’m really trying in my personal life, but in my work life, I saw it happen the most.

Like, there was a while ago, I was a senior product designer at OpenTable and I just got promoted and I was really praised for helping out. That was my position at the company. I could always helping hand, but I remember I was wanting to get to the next level, so I was like, senior, I wanted to get to lead.

So because I was praised in the past for helping out, I was like, all right, I’m just going to continue on in this route. I was just doing way too much. I was helping out in design systems, I was helping out marketing with asset material.

I was like, staying late nights to do all of that work where I should have been doing my own work, and then I just would get really overwhelmed. And then I actually specifically remember my manager at the time who is still one of my biggest inspirations, Leslie Yang. She really always helped me out in leadership as well.

She was like, how are you scaling yourself? How are you prioritizing your work? It looks like you’re just not being able to really say no to anything. And that kind of switched the gears for me to realize that, well, actually, if I start saying no to people and push back and prioritize my time, that is me proving my worth and actually that’s going to take me to the next level. I think that always reminds me of that.

Yeah, I think that’s something that we can all learn from. And you’re so right when you’re growing and when you’re starting off in the industry, everyone really values the hard work and the hustle and helping out, where you’re right. When you start to get more into that leadership frame of mind, you do have to prioritize your time.

And also just being able to say no to things is so hard. That’s a skill that it’s like a muscle that you need to work out consistently so that you can do the scaling that you need to do as a person and as a designer. And, yeah, it happens quite a lot where it takes a manager to step in and be like, what are you doing? Exactly? What I always remind myself is when you look at the leadership, the leaders that we work with or even outside in the world, they’re not doing everything.

They have comfortably said no to things. How have they gotten to that position that’s kind of like, okay, I got to put that hat on and comfortably say no. Yeah, I think that’s really a lesson that a lot of us can learn.

On the topic of burnout and work life balance, is there anything that you do regularly for your productivity or self care? So other than drinking a lot? No, I’m kidding. Water, I’m sure. Yeah, drinking water.

Yeah, exactly. And eating at restaurants. I’m very particular now with my work boundaries.

So I do work a little bit like crazy hours because I’m working American time zones. So I block off on my calendar like a big break. After my morning meetings, I take off like 2 hours just because I’ve been on calls since six or 07:00 a.m..

And so that works for me. If different people have different schedules, but just like putting that in your calendar and all, putting down focus time or I am literally no meetings, but can slack, really? Setting those work boundaries has helped me, and I’ve seen that help other people as well. And that is actually very similar to the previous thing about saying no.

Just saying no in a different way. And I think that helps out your team as well. Like, when you are able to communicate what you’re willing to take on and not take on in that moment, it makes them feel a lot more comfortable in whether or not they ask you for help at a certain time.

No, that’s great. I might have to take some of that advice as well. Some of my calendar.

So you mentioned that you love to take advantage of open table and being within that atmosphere. So you like to eat out a lot. Is there anything else that takes up your spare time? A lot of designers probably feel we’re on our laptops all the time, but we’re such like a lot of us are like people.

People, especially managers. But designers, we are so empathetic of our users. So I just feel like as I meet more designers, that connection with people is so strong.

That’s why when I’m not working, I’m not on my laptop. I used to be back in the day when I was a design, like when I was early in my career, I just loved designing on the side. And I guess I still do.

But now I really respect the like, when I’m working, I’m working on my laptop. When I’m not, I’m not. So I am outside obviously going to restaurants, seeing Friends.

Another thing that I do is I like to switch my brain off completely because work is quite intense and just go hardcore in Guilty Pleasures TV shows. That’s? What TV show? Guilty Pleasures bad reality TV is my kryptonite. So yes, I totally understand that.

When a lot of my job as well is around people asking lots of questions, really driving conversations. And I love it. But at the same time, sometimes when you want to switch off, you just want to switch on something really cringey and zone out.

Love that. Other than bad TV, do you have any content that you listen to, like podcasts or books or anything like that? Or are you more into socializing and that kind of thing? I do like to read, especially for me when it’s around work challenges or something that’s really interested when, like, transitioning at work or I’m facing a problem. So I can recognize for me anyone that’s interested in management, and you don’t need to be at all ready for that in your career, but if that’s on your horizon.

Julie Ajoux making of a manager book is everyone mentions it, but it truly is. It’s a great eye opener into the world of how she grew the design team at Facebook, but then also the challenges that you may face. And so that’s kind of always at my desk right there.

Another book that I always go back to is Lara Hogan’s Resilience management just touches on the soft skills that you may need, and manager is hard. You deal with a lot of technical situations and emotions, so going back to that foundation is really helpful. Yeah.

And I love that you mentioned that even if it’s not a situation that you’re in at the moment, you can still get great value out of those books. Yeah. I recently just read Radical Candor or I listened to the audiobook and I just found that a lot of it was what I would consider a lot of Silicon Valley lingo and few Buzzwords chucked in there for good measure.

But at the same time, there’s a lot of value that you can get out of those leadership books just as a good team member and helps you out not only in your work relationships, but also just in your relationships in general. Absolutely. That book I read, I still remember I was like I think I was just product designer level at that point.

And I remember because the book is so written based for managers, but that inspired us. We even did that book as a design club reading book. Yeah.

And we practiced how to give feedback that is just so important. Definitely. And it’s such a skill that no one actually teaches you.

Like, you either have it or you don’t, but it’s something that can be you can learn that’s great. Is that with, like, a book club in open table? Yeah, we used to do to spin that back up again. That was the first book that we did.

Oh, cool. Nice. That’s such a good idea.

I guess you did mention as well, one of your past managers who you really found super influential. Is there any other business leaders or mentors that you have that inspire you? Yeah, I. Would say.

I always look at my leadership that I work with currently in my position, and I’m always inspired. OpenTable has a lot of great women leaders. As I said.

My past manager, Leslie Yang. She moved on to Lyft. But even my current managers, they’re really strong women leaders.

And I think for me, particularly, I love any gendered leaders, but for me, I really relate to women that are fighting gender equality and really pushing diversity in different ways. I mentioned Julie Jou, her book. She worked with Mark and everyone at that specific time where there wasn’t really many women.

And what she did with Facebook and the design team is so inspiring. I always also on that topic of women business leaders. I see a lot of videos that come up on my Facebook is Indra NUI.

I’ve heard of you. Yeah, I learned her about her in school. So she was the old CEO for Pepsi, and if you find even on TikTok, you just find videos.

And when she speaks, she’s so very methodical and really paced in how she speaks. Very articulate. So much.

Very articulate. And she did so much for that company. And she was the CEO of Pepsi.

Yeah, like one of the biggest companies in the entire globe. Yeah. I love hearing her just she’s one of those people where you just look at her and I’m like, you are so much smarter than me.

Yeah. I want to know, how did she grow? I think she was also born like that. There are quotes that she said just comes natural to her.

I love that. And I think as well, seeing women and people from minority backgrounds in leadership positions, that representation is so, so important. And was there like, a particular time that you thought maybe you wouldn’t be in this position and those people were helping you out? Yeah, well, I think my past manager, I guess there was a period of time I was like, there’s no way I would see myself in leadership.

I just love the craft. I was a product designer, and she was so inspiring. I watched her transition from designer to manager, and then I guess she just did a little bit of nudges.

And I practiced by mentoring. I was just a senior designer mentoring. And then once you start mentoring, you’re actually flipping your mindset a bit versus, like, I can now teach people versus being the student.

And once I started mentoring, and then slowly over time, I was like, oh, you know what? I can do this. It’s just confidence. Yeah.

I mean, that could be potentially some really great advice to give for someone who’s not 100% sure if they want to go into a leadership position. Maybe, like, take on a newbie under your wing, either formally or informally at work or just in general, and see if that experience lights you up and see if you find any exactly any value in it cool. Okay, well, I think I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, because it’s a question that I like to end the podcast on.

If you could give your younger self any career advice, what would it be? Yeah, design is such an interesting role. We have a great community where that we’re in, but it also can be really isolating. And because it’s isolating and maybe this is my experience, it can be also competitive because you are literally, like, judged sometimes with the designs that you’ve got.

And so, for me, I would tell myself, stop comparing yourself to other designers and stop trying to compete. I was always worried, am I staying too long at a company? I’ve been at Open table for six years. How is that going to look on my resume? Or if I’m not designing fast enough, or have I moved into management too quickly? I don’t know.

I just get into some sorts, like, doubts in my mind and I look at other people, I’m very inspired by other people and I’m like, oh, they went the right track. I should have done that in my career. And I’m like, oh, my God, who cares? There is no right career.

And you could go backwards, you could go forwards, you could spend, like, ten years at a company. As long as you’re growing and showing that you are challenging yourself and producing great work and you’re loving what you do, whatever, that should be the main thing, maybe, because I just turned 30, so I don’t really care anymore. Hey, well, that’s a bit of a flex that you’ve done all of this by the time that you’re 30.

Well done, you. I feel like that’s such important advice for people to have, especially in design. You’re 100% right that it’s very competitive, but, like, quietly competitive.

Yes, quietly, because everyone is kind of aware of everyone’s output. But a lot of it is digital, a lot of it is on social media. A lot of it is people don’t see the day to day grind.

You only see the finished product most of the time. So I think it’s really interesting to hear your side in that. The hustle is there and you found that as long as you’re enjoying it and finding value in your current spot, then hell yeah.

Keep going. Yeah. Thank you so much for joining us.

I really enjoyed having this chat and I learned so much. Thank you again for joining. Thank you.

I enjoyed too, and learnt as well.

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