At Disney, Innovation Drives Opportunities for Growth and Connection
At some companies, describing colleagues as superheroes might seem hyperbolic. But at Disney, this type of description takes on a whole new meaning.
“Watching the entire company rally together to amplify and strengthen our brand was almost like watching the Avengers come together to defeat Thanos in Endgame,” said Program Manager Greg Jackson.
For Jackson, participating in the first-ever Disney+ Day in 2021 alongside his colleagues at Disney Streaming resembled something out of a movie. Yet superhero-inspired collaboration isn’t only reserved for major events. In fact, teamwork is a defining feature of life as a Disney employee.
According to Lead Product Designer Meghan Toomayan, relationship-building plays a pivotal role in creating this environment. During her eight years there, she has forged meaningful connections with many of her teammates. This has happened through small gestures — an animator once designed a video game character to possess her signature short purple hair — and large acts of camaraderie, such as when her entire team supported her throughout two spine surgeries by sending meals and books while she recovered. “I’ve made incredible connections at Disney that make my role so much more than just a job,” she said.
CHARACTERISTICS THAT DEFINE
Toomayan noted that access to supportive leaders and countless educational opportunities offer team members such as herself ample chances to stretch skills while tackling exciting technical challenges. She also appreciates the less traditional perks, such as having the chance to watch kids play-test apps in the company’s usability lab.
Senior Product Manager Mikey Perry agreed that there’s a lot to love about working at Disney, including the diversity of its people. While his colleagues impress him with the support and business acumen they offer during stakeholder collaborations and solution brainstorms, they also bring unique perspectives to the table. “Everyone here brings their own story with them, and they’ve made my life richer as a result,” Perry said.
Referencing the technological transformation taking place across Disney, Jackson said the brand’s current evolutionary phase opens up greater opportunities for employees to make an impact. “Our consumer base is scaling more quickly than it ever has before, expedited by the pandemic and technological innovations,” he said. “I’m excited to watch us keep up with this growth.”
Below, Jackson, Toomayan and Perry describe their current projects, opportunities for growth and connection, and their excitement for the brand’s future.
What specific skills are required of your role, and how does your work directly influence the company’s core operations?
Toomayan: As a lead product designer on the Disney+ content discovery team, my role entails a lot of design thinking and strategizing in collaboration with product, research, marketing, engineering and other teams. I’ve mostly worked on early-stage initiatives, through which my team will be given a business goal from our leadership team or insights from our data organization. During these situations, there will be big questions around exactly how and why we should respond, and it’s my job to uncover design opportunities, ideate on possible directions, and help form a strategy through user insights and a sound business case. It’s an exciting role, as my team’s design thinking ultimately brings new Disney+ features and user experiences to life.
Perry: Given the size of our organization and the cross-functional nature of product management, it can be challenging to balance time spent collaborating with colleagues and stakeholders with time spent thinking deeply about customer problems and brainstorming creative solutions, yet both are critical to building a successful product. The best product managers I’ve worked with recognize that this role is more about art than science. You need empathy to understand customers’ motivations, as well as strong intuition within your problem space, which is informed by vast amounts of anecdotal evidence and quantitative data. You need to feel confident about your ability to design system diagrams and user journeys and be able to craft a good story to inspire the team around you. Stressing the importance of outcome over output, I aim to help my colleagues and remain focused on the right problems that, when solved, will deliver real customer value.
Jackson: Every day is different. Our work is a foundational element of the company’s core operations, given the fact that program managers ensure initiatives and launches are flawlessly executed according to Disney’s standards.
Tell us about the biggest project your team is currently working on.
Toomayan: We’re revisiting how brands are expressed within Disney+. Disney has some of the biggest, most beloved brands in entertainment, including Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar. This sets us apart from other streaming services. My current project is exciting because it gets at the heart of what people love most about our content. We’re relying on our users to inform us about how their affinity for our characters and stories could be elevated through our platform’s design. I’ve already observed some awesome user interviews, which constantly remind me how much our brands mean to people. Of course, a big project comes with major challenges as well. Disney+ has content outside of the main brands to consider, which is also very important to our growth. Also, there are many different stakeholders, such as those who run the different studios and help drive how these brands and content are expressed. Trying to formulate a vision and plan is a balancing act that must be done while considering all different perspectives. In addition to being strong creatives, we have to support business objectives. In order to balance all of these priorities, we have frequent consultations with teams across the organization.
Perry: My team is in deep planning mode for an effort we refer to as platform unification for our content supply chain. Essentially, we’re combining the best part of legacy systems and services into a single platform that will power the browse and playback experiences on Disney+, Hulu, Star+ and ESPN+. I’ve never encountered a problem space similar to the content supply chain of the entertainment industry. It’s cosmic in scope, microscopic in detail and invisible to our customers when we nail it. Each element is a unique deliverable that must be sourced from our content partners, conformed to our specifications, delivered into our platform, processed for streaming and published for hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide. With more than 20 supported languages, these deliverables create a digital symphony bolstered by engineering and operations teams working around the clock. We’ve certainly encountered some seismic challenges, but we try to stay grounded by deconstructing problems to their core, establishing a foundational framework and layering on complexity only once we’ve mastered the basics.
HEIGHTENED AT-HOME ENTERTAINMENT
Jackson: Our team is currently working on the Wave 3 territory launch in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The project will bring Disney+ to subscribers in more than 30 additional territories and involves launching brand-new user interfaces and audiovisual languages to the platform on a global scale. The complexities of entering a new market, adapting to different cultural norms and standards, and outfitting the Disney+ product to best fit our consumers’ needs makes this project exciting. There are always competing priorities in an organization this large, so it’s key to ensure these are managed appropriately at the right level and aligned with expectations from the leadership team.
How have you grown professionally during your time at Disney, and who has supported you along the way?
Toomayan: I joined Disney as an intern, which highlights the strength of the company’s growth opportunities. During my internship, my cohort expressed interest in 3D modeling, so our design lead started teaching weekly classes on the topic. I’ve also taken employee-led classes in the programming language SQL and the Lottie animation file format. Besides that, I’ve attended design and product conferences, participated in multiple hackathons, engaged in resume reviews and personal branding workshops, and gained invaluable mentorship through our women in tech initiative. The company also encourages continuing education and will help pay for a portion of program fees.
Leaders have played a crucial role in my development. When I expressed that I wanted to pivot away from games and focus on video platforms, my manager found an opportunity for me to work with a neighboring platform team to gain that experience. Likewise, once I showed an interest in management, my leaders let me manage a research intern and had me work on creating a new department dedicated to UX research. If you have a desire to learn and follow through on your commitments, you will find support for almost anything you’d like to develop.
Perry: I worked at a small company prior to joining Disney, so I’ve had to step up my communication skills to influence people at such a large organization. Given the scale of our ambitions, I’ve often had to cut through ambiguity and figure things out on my own. It can be intimidating, but it also builds character to learn, unlearn and relearn the practice of product management. Fortunately, I get to do this in a supportive environment, where my manager encourages me to challenge conventional wisdom and share my perspective with other team members.
REACHING AUDIENCES WORLDWIDE
What excites you the most about Disney’s current phase of innovation?
Toomayan: The streaming space is huge, and we’re just getting started in terms of what Disney can achieve. It’s great to see how people connect with our content and cultivate fan culture, which is reflected in how kids are doing such creative things on TikTok. I’m excited to help evolve Disney+ into an even richer experience.
The streaming space is huge, and we’re just getting started in terms of what Disney can achieve.”
Perry: We’re witnessing The Walt Disney Company evolve as it transitions from a media and entertainment company powered by technology to a technology company operating in the media and entertainment space. Beyond that, Disney’s physical footprint in amusement parks and hospitality venues provides an unparalleled advantage to extend digital experiences to the real world. There’s never been more opportunity ahead.