“The thing about stage four,” wrote Christopher Hitchens about his esophageal cancer, “is that there is no such thing as stage five.” He died a year later.
When Sarah Kuehnle was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, it meant, among other things, she had to take an extended break from work. It began in the summer of 2014 when she moved to help her partner take care of his father, who would pass away from cancer that November.
Some people might welcome a break from work, but for Sarah Kuehnle, work has never been an obligation. It’s been her way to feel productive, to avoid stagnation and feel forward movement. It’s been something she wants and needs, even—especially—when things are at their worst.
She wrote in June 2015, “2015 has basically been the worst year of my life and I’ll be glad when it’s over. I miss having things to do and responsibilities in a job and being a part of a team. I’ve spent my life defining who I am based on my work. And I didn’t mind that because I’ve loved my work. It drives me. But without it, I feel like I’ve lost my identity. Every day, I feel like I’m just killing time — to the end of the day, to the next treatment, to the end of treatment, etc. I’m worried about my future — my health, my family, my work, my finances. I’m doing my best to stay positive and be the fighter I’m told I need to be. I have good days and bad.
Tomorrow I start treatment 6 of 12, and by mid-October, I hope to be through with treatment and back to looking for work. Back to work and back to a happier, cancer-free, me.
Wish me luck.”
Three years later, Sarah has found her luck. A designer by training, she is now the Head of Product at Dribbble, the leading professional network of creatives for graphic design work. She is working, she is positive, she is cancer-free. As a person who looks at conversion and retention data with regularity, she can tell you what it means when a Google search quickly returns that her cohort—people with stage four colon cancer—have an 11% five-year survival rate. It will be five years on March 5, 2020.
With that all said, it feels a touch trivial to shift to talk about product management, design, and other things that, while cool and interesting, are not cancer. But those things are what drives Sarah. “I really believe in creating things. As often as you can. The happiness that I have had over the years from my creative projects is something I think everybody should do. It can impact your life in such a positive way. It has led to me meeting all sorts of interesting people, working on some really fun things, and learning as I make them. So I’m constantly telling people, probably to their annoyance, that they should make cool stuff, because it’s so rewarding, and a lot of fun at the same time.”
If you’re wondering how someone moves from questioning their own mortality and being in excruciating pain on a regular basis to one of the most coveted positions in her field within three years, that’s a big part of how: by having a deeper passion for her work than everyone else.
Wanting it more
Dribbble, for those of you who don’t have the opportunity to work with designers, is an online community where designers, either professional or amateur, share their work with one another and with prospective employers. Sarah sees at least three distinct cohorts of users on Dribbble: “We have designers who are creating work and uploading it. We have people who want to hire designers. We have people who just love design and are coming here to be inspired.”
One of those users, naturally, is Sarah. “I’ve used Dribbble for many years to upload my own work. It’s great because I do have an understanding of the product at the user level.” But there are downsides to viewing a product you’re working on from your specific user perspective. “When you join the company, you see the code base, you meet the teams, you learn the history, and now you know where all the skeletons are. And so you know why certain decisions were made. That knowledge can be something of a curse. You get this built up idea of how the product works based on your own usage of it.”
As any good product manager will tell you, knowledge of a product is a necessary but insufficient condition for understanding your users. “Qualitative and quantitative data allows you to avoid just assuming the way you use a product is the same as everyone else. It forces you to empathize with your whole user base.”
For Sarah, moving into product management meant picking up some technical skills in the most time-efficient way possible. That meant reading technical documentation to pick up SQL. It meant taking part-time courses to learn iOS development in Swift. And it meant she became the rarest, most cherished of creatures: a person with both a technical and creative skillset.
Design is part of the product
At Dribbble, a new project begins with a UX researcher and a designer, then engineering and the product manager are looped in. This is not merely because Dribbble is a community for designers. It’s because Sarah believes that designers’ concerns, expertise, and input are often sidelined to the peril of the end product.
Design is not something to add at the end; it needs to be part of the whole product development process. Sarah says: “Our design team is involved with us right from the moment we’ve decided to add something to a roadmap.”
As a community for designers, it’s no surprise that Dribbble makes the design team central to the product development process. But Sarah believes that every product team should lean on their designers. “Designers are people who are great at exploring all the edge cases around a particular feature or improvement that you want to make. It’s really valuable to have engaged them very early in the process.”
As a manager, Sarah wants to build an environment that is more human than the sometimes hyper-optimistic environments at tech companies, and is willing to go out on a limb and do something that few people in tech do: discuss her mental health.
“It’s taboo to come out and say that you’re suffering from anxiety and depression. I struggled with it for many years and just tried to fight through it. Having cancer made my mental health struggles feel 100 times stronger. And I regret that I didn’t talk to anyone about it while I was going through treatment because I felt such a stigma attached to feeling depressed. My partner–he certainly noticed it and was really worried for me because I was in such a dark place.”
“Depression can feel like a dirty secret, but once it’s out there, you see that you’re not alone in feeling this way. I’ve shared my story a bit more and it’s led to meeting other people in tech who feel that shame I felt. I don’t know the right answer for how to help everyone, but sometimes just letting someone know you’re there means a lot.”
For a product manager, the technical empathy to communicate with engineers and designers needs to be matched by this more human kind of empathy.
Dribbble is an entirely distributed company. The modern office environment, in which employees are expected to show up every day with a happy face, regardless of their mental state, is not well-suited to everyone and the ability to work from home can be a godsend for some people. But downside of distance is… distance. Connections are harder to forge.
“As a manager, knowing my co-workers is essential for knowing if I need to adjust a deadline when someone’s having a difficult time. And I can point to the other benefits of a more familial relationship, but on a human level, building those bonds is not a productivity hack. I just find it natural and healthier to care about the people in my life.”
So yes, Sarah loves her work and her co-workers. Why wouldn’t she? Running product management at Dribbble is, by any measure, the perfect job for her—right in her area of expertise, but always producing exciting new challenges.
But she has learned that when you’re the kind of person who dives head-first into their work, setting aside time for everything else is important. After all, you can’t know how much time you have left. “I’m a lot more careful with working all the time now. When I’m working, I’m focused and productive. Then, at the end of the day, I can let that go and focus on the other things and people that I love.”