The Community Spotlight—a monthly blog series highlighting some of the amazing members of the email community—is back!
Every month, we’ll interview, highlight, and celebrate the splendid members of the email community. We dig in to where they got their start, where they are now, and explore their challenges and passions in email.
This month, we’re chatting with Crystal Ledesma—design systems expert, fashion aficionado, and long-time email geek.
|Crystal Ledesma (she/her)|
Senior Engineering Manager, Design Systems at Zillow
Follow Crystal on LinkedIn and Twitter
What did the beginning of your time in email marketing look like?
Cranking out sliced-and-diced Photoshop files into HTML emails at ExactTarget!
How did you first connect with the wider email geeks community?
After getting my first email job, hearing from coworkers about Litmus which in turn led me to the email geeks community and Litmus Live. My first connection was mostly focused on learning all I could from others in the community to help me understand! Like most who first get into email, I couldn’t understand why certain things didn’t work in email and I desperately wanted to understand it so I could wrap my head around it better and ultimately do better work.
I think when people get email given to them as a responsibility, there’s two common responses. One is noticing the quirkiness of email and wondering why some things don’t work consistently in clients, and then walking away from email afterward. The other response is being bothered by those inconsistencies and developing an obsessive need to figure it out, and those are the people who become email geeks.
I cannot even begin to imagine where I’d be without the email geeks community! I probably would have quit email a long time ago, crying over Outlook and Lotus Notes.
How would you describe what you found in the email geeks community and what keeps you connected to it?
Unity! There were people facing the same challenges, trying to find similar solutions, and being able to relate to each other gave me a sense of unity to others in the community. I think it’s the same reason why I stay connected to it. Also, there’s something special about folks that work in email—it’s tough! And underappreciated sometimes. Supporting each other and the culture of sharing keeps me connected to it, even if I’m not working in email day-to-day at this point in my career.
I can’t think of another community that is so motivated to share information with one another, with a notable lack of gatekeeping. In comparison, when I was first interested in front-end development there was always someone saying there’s a right way to do this and a wrong way to do this, even though there are actually many ways you can approach work in web development. There was definitely a sense of gatekeeping that was really intimidating to me, whereas the email community was so much more open because we were all just trying to figure it out together.
You’re well-regarded in the email community for your design system work. What was the drive behind developing an email design system?
My drive was mostly about scaling myself. The amount of work that needed to be done was not going to be possible with just me, but at the time it wasn’t possible to hire more dedicated email designers and devs, and I was facing the need to scale my work among a variety of disciplines across orgs and in a variety of different email tools. I also happen to have a difficult time saying “no” when people need my expertise or help too. It forced me to think about how I could scale myself to others and empower them with the abilities I have in a way that works for them, and some research led me to design systems for the web. That approach greatly resonated with the complex problem I was trying to solve, so I dug in to adapt it for email.
Would it be fair to say that you built your career off of the design system you created?
I guess you can say that. My focus was always so much on the outcome that I was trying to achieve, which is scale and efficiency. Everything has always tied back to that sense of wanting to scale, initially me as a one person. And now that we’re a team of 25, we’re trying to support the entire company—people internally who are making the things that ultimately end users interact with.
There are so many things that can be simplified for them to make it easier to focus on the more complex problems they’re trying to solve. I always love this example—I don’t want to think about the right brand color for a button. I’d like to have a button that’s on-brand ready to use, so I can concentrate on more important work. That was always what I was focused on, and I think that’s why my career went that way, because that’s what I cared about.
Could you describe what a typical work day looks like for you?
Everything I do now is high-level strategy for applications of Design Systems across web, native apps, and email. Every day there is some level of all the following: championing cohesion for improving overall user experience no matter which surface a customer is interacting with, advocating for the team and continuous design system adoption across the company, ensuring that I provide guidance and leadership to the team around what our goals are to help them feel empowered to make decisions on their approach to the design system work that will raise the quality bar impact at scale, and supporting team members in their career in alignment with design system work.
Which can also be translated into: lots of writing, presentations, knowledge sharing, and meetings.
What are the specific aspects of your work that you find satisfying?
The human part. Not just leading others—which is definitely a satisfying component to what I do—but how humans are at the core of the work that we do. We’re working to create tools that can increase efficiency and enable humans to think about bigger, more complex problems that will at the end of the day better serve the end users who are interacting with our “product.” Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is positively impact others to improve their quality of life when they’re working, and that’s what makes you feel good about what you’re doing.
Why do you think you find those satisfying?
It’s all about improving things for other humans, and that aspect is an extremely satisfying part of the job. I lead with Insights Earth Green so that probably has a lot to do with it. And supporting each team member, rallying for them and their passion areas, assisting them in areas they want to grow, and helping to find alignment in the work we do provides its own dopamine hit as well.
What are you most proud of in your work and why?
I’m proud of being able to always keep humanness at the core of everything I do and every decision I make. An example would be, there’s a tweet I saw that said, “The world is burning, and there’s a pandemic. But let’s talk KPIs,” and that really spoke to me. So sometimes I tell my team we’re all taking the rest of the day off. I can feel and see and sense in the way people are showing up in meetings or the way they’re chatting on Slack that no one’s able to concentrate. I believe we’re not actually very effective if we’re not treating ourselves as humans first. The work is always here, and it can come later. So I think that’s what I’m most proud of, because we’re not just numbers or cogs, we’re people at the end of the day.
A very second close thing I’m proud of is being able to hire and work with people who are a lot more talented and smarter than I am!
What would you tell someone who’s trying to implement an email design system at their company?
First, take a breath and know that getting buy-in can take time and patience is important. It will also likely mean taking on presenting, storytelling, and “making the case” for an executive level audience. But if you care about making it happen and feel passionate that having a dedicated email design system at your company will make an impact with positive outcomes, dive in.
Start by getting to know what executive leadership cares about at a high level: gather information about email at your company that are in alignment or ladder up to those things leadership cares about, and tie those things to email and how those things can (and will) improve with an email design system.
How have your intersecting identities affected the way you approach your work or your career?
This question makes me laugh and smile a bit, because I really do have a variety of identities that I typically keep pretty separate. I think the intersecting identities I have and the impact to my approach at work and in my career circles back to my centering of humans: having empathy for others and ensuring that humans are recognized and supported as whole humans—and not just a number or solely a producer of work—and ensuring that people’s identities aren’t seen as a blocker to growth at work and in their careers. Performance and ability should be the focus. Identities can bring experience or learnings that can directly improve the work that people do, even if it doesn’t seem obvious on the surface.
Being bi is something I don’t talk about a lot, but I did come out, and I realized I never talked about it before out of fear, because you do see people get treated differently. Then, as a Latina I’ve often been mistaken for the receptionist or the service person, particularly when I was younger. Those are important jobs, and I kind of wish everybody could have a service job at some point in their life so they can understand and appreciate it; I worked those jobs, and was happy to do so at the time. But to have someone assume your role based on your identity doesn’t feel good. I don’t want anyone to feel that way, especially since we can control what we’re doing to ensure that we don’t make people feel that way. So I tell my team, let’s try to take that approach in our work—anyone who is going to consume our design system or be an end user that interacts with it are a variety of people from a variety of identities, and we don’t want to cause harm to anyone.
What would you tell that younger version of yourself just starting out in this industry?
To keep going with your instincts, and to not lose sight of your personal core values, because that’s what ultimately leads you to success. I’d also tell them that you don’t have to be competitive to make it in the industry.
I never wanted to be competitive with my coworkers, because we’re all on a team. I know there are places that are focused on competition, and making sure that you’re the one that’s the most heard so that you get the most credit and the most promotions. I cannot function that way, and I do think every once in a while that thought worried me, thinking that I wouldn’t be as successful. But that turned out to be untrue, and I have found a lot of success in keeping that non-competitive, team-focused mindset.
Which songs pump you up, and which songs chill you out?
This can change every few months! Lately my pump up songs include anything Megan Thee Stallion, or the dancey pop tunes of SG Lewis and Tove Lo. For chill, it’s usually a type of “pumped up” chill sound from Stevie Wonder and Prince.
You’ve finished work for the day, and need to recharge—what do you do?
Depends on the day! I’ll exercise if I haven’t yet—moving around really helps me mentally. Sometimes I’ll draw or do some creative photo editing if my creative energy is ready to go. If my energy is depleted, watching a show or movie I’m excited about can reinvigorate me. Lately, I have been playing Skyrim for the… 6th time now? Running around Tamriel seems to never get old.
Learn from (and connect with) Crystal
Would you like to hear more about Crystal’s work with design systems? You can find our webinar with her covering this very topic here.
Be sure to follow Crystal on Twitter @sentbycrystal.