How To Get Started In User Experience For People I Want To Hire

Some User Experience designers think they are entitled to great jobs out of the gate.

They think that just going to college and getting the degree is enough. That presenting the wireframes from a college project represents a portfolio. That it’s okay to ask for $100 per hour when you really have nothing to show except for a few prototypes.  That just showing up gets you a one percent raise every year, if it gets you a job at all.

For those people that think that, I don’t want to hire them.

As a hiring manager, I want people that show up AND do amazing work.

I want someone that has worked at a startup and failed. I want someone who gets excited talking about building iPhone application ideas on the side. I want conversations about the rule of thirds, food porn, and why the movie Helvetica left you speechless.

I want to ask you what you think of Jeffery Veen, Jeffery Zeldman and Dan Saffer. I want to fill a wall of inspiration with you and talk design on a Sunday afternoon over a latte at Caffe Greco.  I want you to tell me the differences between Visio, Omnigraffle, Basalmiq and Axure, and which is your favorite.

Being a great designer takes motivation and going the extra mile. The best are there. You should join us.

The reality of the working world:

  • Getting your degree is like buying an extra lottery ticket – you aren’t guaranteed anything.
    It’s not an admission ticket; it means you’ve completed learning in the field. No one hires an artist or writer because they’ve completed their education; they have to show real talent. A Master is the new Bachelor’s degree. I made the mistake of hiring someone that had  an education (and not much else). Now I look more for fit, talent and drive. Marc Andressen has a great article on this.
  • Awesome jobs aren’t found through job applications but through personal referrals.
    The best jobs never appear on job boards; they are through word of mouth. It’s usually discovered through endless hours of networking or because recruiters found us after we promoted ourselves. Normally, these jobs are through personal or employee referral. We talk about that all the time on the  Jobvite blog. I told an  acquaintance  of mine, Abel Lin, to do this. He’s now working for a great startup, Munch on Me.
  • If you expect to make six figures in any job, you need to put in the time.
    Skills learned in master’s programs really should be part of a bachelor’s program, and other skills you need are learned on real projects with real constraints working with  difficult  people. Employers want 100 percent effort, not 75 percent, and that means learning outside of a 9-to-5.
  • Most of the hiring managers came up the hard way.
    We worked 60 to 80 hours a week at jobs that didn’t pay nearly as well as they are now (one of my first “real jobs” was $15 per hour as a magazine art director).  While many of us don’t have relevant degrees, we understood the value of learning, and sometimes inventing, the process. There’s nothing more annoying than interviewing someone that thinks they should be making more than you with 12 years less experience.

Let me  offer you some tips that impress me and other hiring managers.  

I work for a company that provides software for applicant tracking. I talk to recruiters during usability testing, and I have to understand their thought processes. I don’t consider myself an expert, but my opinion should count.

Tip 1: Do something outside of work on a volunteer basis

When I worked in print, someone walked into the agency I was working at and asked to have a brochure printed to film (remember film?). I didn’t know them at all, but I knew I could do a better job. It was for a congressional candidate for the 1994 election cycle. Democrats don’t do very well in Orange County, Calif., but I thought it would be a hoot. I worked for a few campaigns before, but it didn’t really go anywhere. I volunteered to do all of their direct mail. For free.

It turned into the most expensive congressional campaign in history.

The Republican candidate was Congressman Bob Dornan. The race paved the way for his eventual defeat. The campaign manager eventually went on to start an Internet consulting firm, and I came along. That was the beginning of my Internet career, and I never looked back. It led to a top 100 site as named by PC Magazine and most of the brands for which I have worked.

I continue to work on passion projects outside of work (UX Drinking Game, anyone?), because you never know where they will lead. There are non-profits and political campaigns everywhere that need help, and it’s a great way to build your portfolio. All you have to do is ask.

Tip 2:  Learn a second skill

I look for a T skillset: a generalist that can perform a lot of skills competently with one specialty. Having some design and prototyping skills is nice. In a pinch, you should be able to open Photoshop and make it look good.

Working for a startup mean you have to do a number of things well because there isn’t anyone else to help you. We, at Jobvite, have to cover a lot of ground, so I look for a T skillset: a generalist that can perform a lot of skills competently with one specialty. Having some design and prototyping skills is nice. In a pinch, you should be able to open Photoshop and make it look good. Most importantly, you should be able to write like there’s no tomorrow because communication is very important.

I don’t like to have what I call stay at home defensemen: people that can perform only one skill. These are specialists that may be good in certain situations but aren’t flexible enough in times of real need. Larger companies may specialize more, but who wants to work for Yahoo? You should have enough skills so that you will always be valuable in companies. I think writing well is something that you have to be great at because it fills so many needs.

The best User Experience professionals I have met are talented at many things, and they get the best jobs.

Tip 3:  Go to meetups

I was at Designer Fair a few weeks ago, and I was surprised at how few designers, even new graduates,  were there looking for work. I was specifically looking for an Interaction Designer for Jobvite, and seeing if there was anything interesting.  I gave out a few business cards and didn’t get any emails.

If you go to meetups, you’re going to run into people that are hiring. I know two other companies specifically that I could refer people to right now. One of them was willing to go down a bit in experience, if they came across the right talented candidate.

I know a lot of people, and I love helping people. There’s value there. Understand that value in meeting the right people, and it will do wonders for your career.

You never know who you’ll meet. And that’s a good thing.

Tip 4:  Propose internships to companies you like (and may not like)

There is no free lunch in this world, and if you make an effort for the right people. I would totally consider interns, if they had written a letter to me and had some kind of work to show, especially because it shows initiative.

In a totally random meeting earlier this summer, I ran into Erin Moore, a designer from New York City. Her design work is good, but she decided to go back to school to get a MFA in Interaction. Who knew I would meet her through a friend’s subletting interview?

She’s been in the design field for a while but went back to school because she knows Interaction Design is her passion.

Her internship? Twitter. How cool is that?

She spent the summer out here probably not getting paid much, but she knew this was a necessary step in her life. She has bills just like everyone else, but she found a way to make it work. She also knows the personal networking opportunities were ridiculous.

There is no free lunch in this world, and if you make an effort for the right people.  I would totally consider interns, if they had written a letter to me and had some kind of work to show, especially because it shows initiative.

Another friend hired a guy that brought a PowerPoint to the  interview and showed what he could do for the company – as an intern. I’ve  interviewed director-level candidates that don’t do that, and it showed how prepared this candidate was. The last candidate I interviewed even downloaded a mobile application I designed, and we talked about it.

There are many resources to find internships. Jobvite clients list them on their career sites, and you can also search Internmatch and Internships.com. Your odds go up quite a bit when you start applying.

I have no idea why more people don’t consider Jobvite as a great way to make connections. Again, we have thousands of recruiters that use our system — and those are the recruiters who hire interaction designers on a regular basis. Also, many companies use  their internships to train people.

If you’re good, you’ll be hired on full-time. All you have to do is show you can do the job.

Tip 5:  Find a job that matches your current skill set and pivot

If you’re getting a MFA in Interaction, either you’re:

  1. Right out of school with no other work experience, or…
  2. Back in school after a few years with a related degree

If you’re the second, good for you!  You’re in a great position.

There are many new companies out there that are starving for talent, any talent, that can help them. Sometimes they have a position that matches your previous career. If this happens, run, not walk, to their careers page. It may be a contract position, but who cares — it’s about getting in the door so you can show them how awesome you are.

If I were coming up in the field today, this is what I would do:

  • Find startups I like
  • Watch positions that I’m at least closely related to
  • Stalk them: Find out where the people that work there go to meetup (even if it means talking to them on Twitter or watching them on Foursquare)
  • Respond to them on Quora
  • Research the company so you know it better than the management does

I would then ask about any jobs that are relevant to your skill set and get in the door. Then I would start hanging out with the design team and offer them help after hours. It’s about showing them what you can do, right?  No one really knows what you can do unless you have a great portfolio. And that research thing is extremely important — recently I interviewed someone that knew more about the company than anyone else I interviewed. He talked about a video I recorded around agile two or three years ago. No one does that anymore, and it’s really impressive.

Eric Stromberg  has a great post about this. So does Jean Hsu.

If someone calls bullshit on this, I’ll direct them to a visual designer that I hired, Kenneth James Hamer. Smart guy. We engaged in several conversations on Twitter, and now he’s working for me at Jobvite.

Most companies have at least one advocate that’s using social media that’s hidden in plain sight (seriously, if you type Jobvite User Experience, I’m the number four result on the company blog). It took 30 seconds of research to find me. Why can’t others do it?

Tip 6:  Have passion for what you do

There’s nothing more important in this field than having a passion for what you do. You aren’t putting a bolt on a car — you’re building products that can change the world. I can say that I’ve been involved in products that have been in front of close to 500 million users. That takes a lot of passion.

There’s nothing more important in this field than having a passion for what you do. You aren’t putting a bolt on a car — you’re building products that can change the world. I can say that I’ve been involved in products that have been in front of close to 500 million users.  That takes a lot of passion.

Don’t start a blog, but you should at least tweet. Read articles and retweet. Share thoughts. Keep it short but honest. Develop a voice.  I should be able to walk up to you at any point and ask, “Who are your favorite user experience designers or blogs?” You don’t have to answer Bill Buxton, Jacob Nielson or Donald Norman (or even Alan Cooper). You don’t even have to read my blog (but it would be stupid not to say “yes” in an interview).

I should be able to look into your eye and see your passion for what you do. I want to work with people that are as excited about what we do as I am. And you should be working with people that have the same passion, so you can learn.

Not everyone has passion for what they do, but great hiring managers want only that so that they can build great teams.

Not a Tip: A challenge for companies

Our current situation is a massive opportunity to rethink how we train future generations, because what we’re doing now isn’t working.  The current financial crisis will not be solved by Washington. It will be solved by American corporations and entrepreneurs retraining our workforce and rethinking our work culture.  It will be solved by offering internships and training that  is valuable to people that want to work at a company.

If someone takes the first step, we should be there to help them with the second. Finding qualified Ruby on Rails developers isn’t going to happen overnight; we should take candidates with similar skills and give them a chance; and for that chance, they should be willing to work for less to learn the skill.

Jobvite, where I work, already does this with a new graduate training program. It’s great: we get a first shot at highly qualified candidates, and they get valuable experience. They also work hard, knowing this will lead to better opportunities because of who customers are. Many other companies, like LinkedIn, don’t write long posts offering complaints; they create solutions.

This should be a model for all technology companies (Mahalo doesn’t have any of those listings, ironically). Most companies have eliminated the notion of apprenticeships, and this is hurting our economy. We have to change this.

I have some great suggestions for companies on developing great programs around this. We need to get the ball rolling.