What I learned after shifting from in-house to consulting

Catt Small
6 min readMar 16, 2023

In early 2022, I reached a crossroads in my position as an in-house Staff Product Designer. Asana wanted employees to shift back to working in person following two years of remote collaboration. Some roles could get exceptions, but Product Designers were not allowed to work from home. Paths to career growth were also elusive since teams needed to colocate, so I decided to look for a new role.

After going through a curated handful of interview processes and receiving three offers, I joined an early-stage venture studio called All Turtles as their Director of Product Design. You can read more about that shift here. While I learned a lot during my time at All Turtles, I recently chose to move on.

It might surprise you that I left this role after less than a year. People often say it’s important to grit your teeth for the sake of a good-looking resume. But when you know, you know. So, I want to share what I learned from this experience, highlight what impacted my decision, and talk briefly about my next steps.

Please note that this was a complex, nuanced process and I am summarizing for both brevity and privacy. A lot of consideration went into my departure. I am nonetheless grateful to have had the time with my wonderful team at All Turtles and wish them all the best.

With that said, let’s jump in!

Biz dev rules everything around you

One of the major things I learned from my career change is that consulting work requires a lot of business development. You must constantly look for new clients and projects, pitch folks on behalf of your company, and navigate lots of rejection. Your work is priced and quantified at a level most in-house designers never consider.

While I’m glad to have built more direct pitching and business experience, I had no idea how much time I’d be spending on it! Some weeks, it took up the majority of my working hours. The constant focus on drumming up new business started to take a toll on me, and I missed the less transactional nature of being an in-house designer.

Context switching is your bestie

When you’re a consultant, you work on lots of very different projects with a discrete team of individuals. This has many benefits, including closer working relationships-I connected with my team so quickly! However, there was so much context switching. My team was often simultaneously working on so many projects with zero shared context. Providing helpful feedback required much more effort. I appreciate that in-house designers often have a larger pool of people with shared context and a variety of projects that all relate to each other.

The client is always right

As a consultant, your clients’ perceptions of you are key. It was important to let clients know they are in control, and I needed to make them feel heard-even in the most frustrating situations. While empathy is crucial in any situation, in-house designers don’t usually have to worry about this particular brand of politics.

You’ll be moving fast from the outside looking in

At any early-stage startup, you are pressured to move quickly so the company can capture market share. Consultants must prove their worth to fast-paced startups by moving with velocity while delivering good outcomes. This can cause a lot of compounded stress due to timelines. Some people thrive in this environment, and I have certainly done my share of rallying calls while in-house, but I actually found it more challenging to justify the pace as a consultant.

Project outputs are more expendable

My team’s work was modified or discarded without consent quite often because we were working on the outside. Clients often didn’t want to compensate us for engineering support, which meant my team often didn’t have the opportunity to do visual QA once their designs were implemented. In-house designers are embedded and have a better chance of seeing their work through to completion. My yearning for the in-house life intensified when I caught up with clients after projects launched-I could tell how proud they were of their work.

Our impact was questionable

My team was small and mighty, but we were often kept out of the loop unless it was necessary for future projects. It didn’t matter if I asked for help with defining success at the beginning of projects or followed up for outcomes at the end. No one would give me any measurable data!

I quickly came to miss the deeper connection and sense of long-term ownership that comes with working on a product in-house. Product teams often freely share data, and PMs and Data Analysts are usually very open to discussing business strategy with designers. As a consultant, I felt like I was constantly nagging.

Expectations of your role shift quickly

As a Director at a consultancy, I was asked to do hands-on design work more often than one would expect in an in-house role. This might be due to scale; some job titles at smaller employers of mine have been more ornamental than rational. However, at consultancies, you can only scale when your team has enough paying work to grow-so you will need to fill gaps when a new hire isn’t justifiable.

My team was five people for the majority of my tenure as a Director, and the company did not intend for us to scale enough to need Design Managers. Therefore, it was unlikely that I’d ever have the full duties of a Director. If I’m honest, this was really challenging for me and I had to bury the vision I initially had for myself in this role.

I then took work that was crucial to our survival, regardless of my title. A lot of the work did not feel like it was within my zone of genius, and I felt like I would stagnate if I continued to do it. When I experienced this as an in-house designer, I was able to voice my concerns and work to resolve the issue. At this early-stage consultancy that intended to stay small, there was no room to change my situation.

Being on the cutting edge is awesome

In 2021, I learned about angel investing through a program called Pipeline Angels. I might write about what I learned during the program (permission pending). Investing at the angel stage is a way to ensure the success of more Black, brown, and marginalized leaders. My interest in the venture space grew quickly. That interest was a major reason I joined All Turtles.

Every consultancy-particularly every venture studio-has a different area of expertise. This defined area, also known as an “investment thesis”, narrows their field of vision so they can invest and/or work on projects with focus and consistency. Make sure you’re passionate about that focus. In my case, I realized my personal investment thesis didn’t fully align with the outcomes of my day job.

I strongly value the ability to choose which companies I support (like Merit, Tourus, and Artistree). Angel investing gives me more control. I want to do more angel investing in the future, and I’d prefer to spend the rest of my time working in-house at a company whose mission I support.

During my time at All Turtles, I had the opportunity to work closely with lots of early-stage startups, learn about their challenges, and help them take charge of opportunities. I’m grateful for this experience and will use what I’ve learned to support other wonderful companies. Some of them might be a good fit for a certain turtle-themed venture studio!

So… what’s next?!

My time at All Turtles was full of new experiences. I’m grateful for what I learned from my time there, and I don’t think there’s any other way I could have learned these lessons. However, after a lot of processing, I ultimately recognized it was not the place for me. While consulting has its benefits, I prefer in-house design work at a larger company.

Since my departure, I’ve taken additional time to rest and reflect. I’m excited to start a new chapter in my professional journey next week. I’ll be joining an in-house Design team as an individual contributor, working on crunchy problems with lots of smart folks! I’ll also continue my angel investing and design advisement work, which will allow me to support and empower more startups run by underrepresented founders in tech.

I hope sharing my experience helps others who are considering a career change. I encourage you to explore your options and try as many styles of working as you can. Cheers to taking calculated risks and learning from their outcomes!

Originally published at https://cattsmall.com on March 16, 2023.

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Catt Small

Product Designer, Programmer, Game Developer, Artist, & karaoke ♥er. Bronx-born & raised. She.