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Advice from an Ex-Con

I recently attended a designers lightning talk, and one of the presenters used to work as a product designer for Martha Stewart. I thought the lessons derived from her talk would be relevant to devs as well.

1. Be an expert, not a perfectionist

Martha was known make employees cry.

This designer testified that Martha would throw a major fit if her product wasn't to her specifications: the logo is off by one pixel, it isn't the right shade of blue, the punctuation doesn't have the right amount of roundness, etc. of all the ridiculous expectations she had.

All of this, and, also, she expected you to read her mind.

Communication with her--well-- no one could even connect with her in the first place.

You can share your expertise and knowledge without being overbearing. "Disguise" them as mere suggestions. Always ask permission to share a critique if the conversation hasn't been prefaced with a request for one.

2. Ignore haters, but don't ignore reality

Martha has a daughter who ran a show called, "Whatever, Martha". Alexis Stewart reams her mother with criticisms and mockery simply because Martha wasn't physically and emotionally present throughout her life.
She resents her.

Martha lives in a world where she is the absolute center of it. She paid no mind to those who didn't benefit her and her company. The reality is that her view of her world harmed many around her, especially her own daughter.

If the "hater" isn't someone of consequence and doesn't constructively provide any substantial reason why or how your product is lacking, then pay no mind. However, if your product isn't functioning correctly, is breaking everything else, and/or is receiving regular constructive criticism, maybe you should consider stepping back a few paces and look at your project as a whole.

3. Work hard, but not that hard

As previously mentioned, Martha was a non-entity in her daughter's life all because she wanted to grow and optimize her DIY empire. She was so focused on the money, but her moves got messy-- thus resulting in incarceration.

Takes breaks. Take steps back. Spend a little bit of that built up PTO. Allow yourself to breathe, then dive right back in.

4. Commit to your vision, but stay flexible

Nothing is ever set in stone, and no road is ever perfect. Martha was unreasonably rigid in regards to the development of her products, resulting in constant turnovers in her company and sub-par product quality compared to other brands. Though her products do make the shelves, the overall rapport in the company and the products' quality are dismal.

Even though you made a cut-and-dry plan of attack, everything could change at an instant: one of your teammates leaves, someone accidentally pushed an unstable experiment to prod, the whole building could collapse on your laptop.

You have the end goal in sight. Simply create a few contingency plans.

Bless cloud-based version control.

5. Stay human

The designer witnessed Martha Stewart first-hand: Martha thought of herself as the greatest good Earth is ever-gonna-get.

She wasn't approachable. She wasn't reasonable.

Accept your own flaws, but always strive to improve. Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them.

Design and develop products with empathy.

Granted, we make mistakes. We will falter in all of these lessons at some point from here on out. What matters is that we get back up and simply do better and not make the same mistakes Martha has made.

TL;DR: Don't be like Martha.

Thank you for reading! You can reach out to me via my site:, or on twitter!

Top comments (1)

annarankin profile image
Anna Rankin

...punctuation doesn't have the right amount of roundness...


Thanks for this write-up, Cat! Point #1 in particular brings flashes of an old job to mind, where a C-level person would stand over my shoulder and direct me to inch elements "one to the left... No... One to the right... Two more to the left..." Martha-level micromanaging sounds horrifying 😱