From blending arts and science to acing a career in experience design, how Atlassian’s Swarna Mehta found her calling
“If you throw me in a place where I feel uncomfortable, I will be drawn to it,” says Swarna Srimal Mehta, Product Manager,. She started at Atlassian in the experience design team, and her zeal for technology and design shines through, as she speaks about her journey punctuated with challenges, milestones, and learnings.
Swarna grew up in Kolkata, a city that is steeped in arts and culture, and it had an influence on her early on. At the same time, her love for science and maths knew no bounds. “As a child, I was always a tinkerer, and would open up toys to see how they work,” she adds.
Her interest in science and inclination towards arts was peppered with the idea of experimentation. She grew up watching her grandfather and father who were businessmen and also accomplished rowers.
All these experiences led her to find her calling in a field where she could blend her interests while expanding to newer avenues; and that’s how design happened.
Challenges and learnings
Looking back, Swarna says that a career in design was certainly a ‘chance encounter’. As an academically inclined student, she decided to attend a few trial classes that prepare students for engineering entrance exams but the thought of leaving behind her artistic interest didn’t let her pursue engineering.
Swarna started looking for courses that blended arts and science. “During this time, one of my teachers advised me to take up design, but as an outsider, I thought it was only linked with fashion,” she shares, adding that she eventually went on to pursue an undergraduate diploma in Industrial and Product Design from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad.
The first few years at design school were difficult, as she felt intimidated by other students who “knew how to draw”. But what struck Swarna’s mind was how design worked as a tool to solve a user’s need. As the course progressed, it became more about thinking systemically about problems.
After completing her course at NID, Swarna went on to work for companies such as Ducere Technologies, Uptake, and Samsung, before making her mark at Atlassian.
Combining experience design with business
Thinking beyond design and diving into the business side of things during her first professional engagement further shaped Swarna’s understanding of bringing a product to market.
“I started looking for courses that allow designers to study business and engineering, along with design. Finally, I got through Carnegie Mellon University in the USA,” adds Swarna. She followed this by working at various companies where she looked for opportunities to combine business and design.
‘Designing’ a career at Atlassian
“I spent a lot of time and thought about becoming multi-disciplinary, I didn’t want to stick to one craft,” Swarna tells YourStory, talking about factors that drew her to Atlassian. While joining the company, Swarna had absolute clarity that she would not like to be “boxed in a certain role”.
A detailed discussion with the HR and other members from Atlassian gave her a peek into the company’s culture that enables flexibility of transitioning into other roles, in addition to having a collaborative approach to innovation; and this resonated with Swarna deeply.
Another key factor that drew Swarna was the “scale of things” at Atlassian. “The fact that whatever we are designing is enabling people to carry on their day-to-day work and hence needs to be well studied and examined from every angle. That kind of rigour to the design process is very exciting,” says Swarna, talking about choosing to be a designer at a B2B company and debunking the perception of B2B being less “shinier and glossier” because of more customer-facing elements of a B2C company.
A multidisciplinary professional
At Atlassian, Swarna got an opportunity to work on a project where she wrote the first set of rules around perceived performance. The project was about visually approaching a challenge with the help of various cross-functional teams to design a page that is perceived faster than it actually is. The success of the project has led Atlassian to make it an integral part of the solutions they provide.
Staying true to her multidisciplinary nature, Swarna has recently transitioned into the role of product manager. She gives credit for her smooth transition to Atlassian’s solid framework of mentorship and a culture that encourages learning, knowledge sharing amongst peers, and investing in an employee’s wholesome growth.
“I have seen [hiring managers of] companies get uncomfortable in their seats when they realise that I am not a traditional designer or a traditional business or product manager … But, at Atlassian, I didn’t have to tick a box [on who I am],” says Swarna, highlighting that she thrives on opportunities where she can stretch, solve challenging problems, and bring more value to the table.