Interview with Chetty Arun, Design Manager at Razorpay

We spoke to Chetty Arun, Design Manager at Razorpay, and Mentor at ownpath. He talks to us about what it’s like to head a top design team, how the culture at Razorpay nurtures ownership, and how his mentorship experience all started with a tweet.

Q. What do you do at Razorpay? How did you get started?

I’m Chetty Arun. I currently head the Design team at Razorpay. I’ve been a part of Razorpay since the inception. So Harshil Mathur and Shashank Kumar are the co-founders of Razorpay, I’ve known them since my college days. They were a few batches older than me, but we had a small student group in college so that’s how I know them. And when they set up, it was kind of natural for me to get started with them for Design, and that’s where my six year long journey began.

At Razorpay the design team is around 35 people strong. And it’s not just about building a payment gateway anymore, that’s what we started off as. But now, we’ve kind of expanded on that. We serve as three business units; one is about payments, the other is about capital- the lending vertical and the third is the banking hub. So, more or less the entire team is also expanding to the three verticals.

Along with design, I take care of a small team called culture committee, who is responsible for spreading awareness and keeping the organization culture in check. They’re responsible for the organization evolving over time and asking questions like; ‘what kind of values should we imbibe’, ‘what kind of values do we not identify with and how do we curb them’?

You’re given a particular target, and then how you reach that target is up to you. So, that gives them a lot of freedom, which means they have to own up to things and often go out of their (designer’s) way to get it done. In fact, I can put this in writing, most designers on this team can become product managers at any point.

Q. Many people consider the design team at Razorpay as highly esteemed. Can you tell me a little more about the culture you guys share, and the dynamics you function within?

There’s a couple of factors that help give the team structure and allow them to design efficiently. The first is the level of ownership that designers add up is phenomenal. However, this isn’t exclusive to the designers, we see ownership taken seriously in every vertical at Razorpay. So, there is no micromanagement whatsoever. You’re given a particular target, and then how you reach that target is up to you. So, that gives them a lot of freedom, which means they have to own up to things and often go out of their (designer’s) way to get it done. In fact, I can put this in writing, most designers on this team can become product managers at any point. Because the level of ownership and freedom they get allows them to explore so many different things. They’re kind of pseudo managers at times. And this helped us set up a strong design console.

The second reason is, across the industry, we never lower the hiring bar. We make sure that we find people who can grow into the roles. For example, if we find someone who is not quite at that level we expect them to be but has the potential to learn and grow into the role, then we give them around six to seven months and if all works we extend the offer.

Leaders all across Razorpay, not just design, are leaders who were grown to fill those roles within the company. If I’m looking for a leader, I’d rather look for one within the team than get someone from outside the organization. It’s much easier to grow a leader from within the organization. Which is more of your control on hiring, and the growth path of every designer. Our culture is more or less dependent on these three attributes. And that has helped us immensely.

Q. What traits do you look for in a designer?

We have a simple framework for thinking about that. There are three different competencies. The first is, the core design skills. There are multiple subcategories like, ‘how good is someone with figuring out the problem statement with research’, ‘do they put that extra level of care and finesse with the UI’, ‘do they understand technical capabilities’. And here the leverage can change, we core understand changes for a fresher and manager.

The second is the peripheral attributes, for example, ‘how well do you understand the product? How well do you understand the domain’. When I’m treating you as a product manager, I am also expecting you to come back and give me feedback; if you don’t think a feature fits the scope, or you want to see something being included for better UX. Building a product is only half done, I want to know how you will fit this into your business use. You’d have to work with SEO, Sales, Marketing folks etc. Because design is not just a transactional beast anymore, where you’re only beautifying someone else’s product. Gone are the days where designers are just treated as transactional. So it becomes that much more important to gain all these peripheral experiences.

The third comes back to our culture. We think about things like, ‘how good are you on the learnability scale? Can I can train you on some factors? How fast? How quickly can you adapt to the culture very easily? And how quickly can you pick up some skills? For example, a lot of people have issues with basic communication. They may be great designers but they’re not able to speak about their ideas. Often they have to rely on their managers to communicate their vision.

For example, if someone wants to be a leader in design then we heavily focus on the collaboration, mentorship, so the leadership and mentorship aspects etc. If someone wants to be an individual architect, then we can focus heavily on know, helping that person be better. Whatever the the person is doing today on the UX, the principles of design UI research, figuring out what to be what markets, so depends on the growth parts as well.

Q. What advice do you have for managers who are looking to nurture their own design teams?

So it’s a very interesting thing, there’s no textbook answer to it as to this. It depends on a lot of factors, like you know how the product is not in the market; how your business teams are structured; how design is perceived in your organisation. For example, there are a few verticals, where you don’t need to do that level of homework; you can quickly come up with some designs and test them out quickly, and then reiterate on them. And on the other hand, there are a few industries where you have to make sure you’re right at all costs. Like finance, where you can’t experiment with money. You can’t move fast and break things like Mark Zuckerberg tells you to. You have to be very clear with what you have to do. It’s a sensitive domain, you can move money with the click of a button. So you have to have a lot of clarity about what you’re doing. So the level of homework is very important.

Another extreme example, but it depends on what kind of product management structure do they have? How important is design? The answer to this depends a lot on what the company wants- is design just an add on? Or does design drive a lot of things?

Q. How has the industry and space within design in finance evolved?

Razorpay evolved through its natural course in conjunction with the industry. For example, consider demonetization, it changed the picture completely. Cash used to have the highest share, and then along with demonetization came easy payment methods like UPI. So, people who weren’t paying online yesterday, will start paying online today. Half of the business is coming in from new users and people who have never interacted online. The most they would do is perhaps use WhatsApp, and now they’re paying their electricity bills, home rent, utilities, all online. So, we were tasked with making sure our design was evolving with these markets and hitting in the right spots.

Research has also evolved. This was not very big in 2015, and we may not have known how to do it properly. We did whatever we could at the time. But now, we look at it in a highly structured way. We think about when to talk to users, when to have difficult discussions, how to talk to them and gather insights etc.

Everyone needs a mentor, because whatever you’re going through and whatever the idea situation you want to be in may be, there is someone who has already gone through that path. So you may as well have a conversation with them and understand their journey and mistakes.

Q. Talk to us a little about your experiences with mentorship

So, I didn’t get too much exposure when I was in college and was figuring out what to do in life. Even once I was at Razorpay, I was the first designer and although I had support from the Founders and the initial core team set up there were no other designers with me.

So it all started when I was talking to my Juniors at my alma mater, and I just happened to tweet out that my calendar was open and if anyone wanted to talk they could get in touch. I know a lot of people hesitate to reach out to others they know, so I wanted to make it easier for them. I’ve had over 100-150 calls as of today. Every week I have almost two to three appointment slots open. The design community in India is also evolving, there are a lot of people transitioning from their existing paths to design. The entire designation of design is getting streamlined. So, I know a designer who’s currently a chartered accountant and wants to get further into design. Naturally, the questions he asks me from this domain are very different. And I talk to him about how product companies work; how managers work; how to engineer design into implementable stuff; these are things you need to keep in mind when you solve a problem; how to understand that the hunches about the problems you have are not always what you consumer faces; how to research this, etc.

Everyone needs a mentor, because whatever you’re going through and whatever the idea situation you want to be in may be, there is someone who has already gone through that path. So you may as well have a conversation with them and understand their journey and mistakes. I think everyone should look for two mentors, active mentors and passive mentors. These two people will more or less be like how you parents work, or related managers. One who is actively looking at you and telling you where you can get better. And a passive mentor, who is someone you look upto, but rarely speak to. This person will be less biased with your degree work and can give you a complete third person perspective as to where you are. It’s important here to not seek out this person in someone you know like a friend or family member.

Design is not just sitting in a corner, designing something on your screen and giving it off. It’s about working with multiple people, figuring out what the real problems are, actually doing something of impact and then shipping it. I think this course will shed some light on that.

Q. Tell us some of your book or podcast recommendations.

I’m more into the entrepreneurial spirit and kind of one of those people who would consider that design is one of the key pieces in a product. So I want designers to take that level of ownership and more or less run as a CEO of a particular product. So, I read more about, you know, in general startups and entrepreneurship are one of the recent books.

The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You by Julie Zhou. She’s a phenomenal designer from Facebook. She also runs a blog post called the looking glass. It’s a very interesting newsletter from our not more than one blog post for a couple of weeks. She runs a really nice blog post.

Shunya One- They kind of call in product managers, engineers and other leaders in the industry about the Indian industry itself. And then they talk about how the industry is and it’s a very casual kind of a tech show.

Other than that, I recently started following Tim Ferriss podcast. Yeah, so it’s a pretty nice podcast. Every podcast is over one and a half hour long.

Q. What are your interests outside design?

So another thing about the Razorpay culture is we have this saying, ‘nothing else is someone else’s problem.’ It’s a quote by the YC Founder and we take it very seriously. For example, there have been times when I was solving issues on the HR front, just because I was interested in then I saw a gap and then I could get it. And there were times when we as designers got feedback from the finance folks, just because it was out there, they saw something.

When the office was open, we had this practice where we would just get into meetings. Even though it wasn’t for your department. In a culture of transparency, where every piece of information should be public we make room for things like this. There have been times where in the middle of my design presentation, someone from admin will tell me it looks good. We try to get our hands dirty whenever possible.

Q. Razorpay is one of our collaborators for the Product Design Fellowship, what are you looking forward to?

There are very few design courses in the industry as of today that actually teach you what’s happening in the real world. Because although there are ample college courses which will teach you the theory of design, they don’t necessarily touch upon what’s happening inside these big companies. So in terms of the three different functions of a designer that I previously mentioned, colleges do a good job in touching upon the core design skills. However, they fall short in actually telling you how to design a working product and ship it. ownpath will help designers get that picture; design is not just sitting in a corner, designing something on your screen and giving it off. It’s about working with multiple people, figuring out what the real problems are, actually doing something of impact and then shipping it. I think this course will shed some light on that. This would also help folks who are joining the course to be prepared and get into the industry faster; it gives them a heads up saying, this is what the actual design world is like.

A lot of assignments that you’re going to get in college are hypothetical problems that may or may not exist. But at ownpath, we’re going to give you a problem that actually exists. We’d consider current things like say the pandemic; since everything from your kid’s education to ordering food is now online, how do you make this experience better? Can you figure out a problem statement and come up with a solution? And while in college, you may get hypothetical problem statements, and while these hypothetical situations might be good enough for you to solve they might not give you a real picture as to how design will function in a product or service based company.

But with mentors like Sameer, who’s an incredible person with experience ranging over 10 years with multiple companies and service based companies, with insights from that kind of a person you will get to know actually understand what is expected out of you as a designer.

So another thing about the Razorpay culture is we have this saying, ‘nothing else is someone else’s problem.’

Learn with Arun

Arun is a mentor on The Product Design Fellowship, that starts in Jan 2021. Grow your skills in Product Design and get hired at top design teams.

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