Also published on Medium via UX Collective.
I’m writing this in the middle of 2020, and if you’re a recent graduate from college or a design bootcamp, you might be searching for your first full-time job, which — even under non-pandemic circumstances — is an incredibly stressful situation.
There was a recent article going over some expectations for the new designer, and I wanted to add a few practical tips and perspectives that might be helpful.
There’s usually a large information gap between fresh applicants and the companies hiring, so my hope is my perspective — as a former first-time applicant, as someone who has been on hiring panels, and as someone who did the actual hiring — can help fill in the details.
If you’re looking for your first full-time job, aiming for the big tech companies is going to be an uphill battle. They get thousands of applicants and, more often than not, will just end up relying on their referral networks. As you’ve also probably seen, most of the openings that aren’t just for college grads expect a minimum of 2-5 years of experience.
The flip side is that because bigger companies attract most of the candidates, startups with much smaller design teams struggle to attract talent. You can use this to your advantage because if you make an impassioned case at smaller startups and demonstrate the right skills, you’ll at least have a fighting chance (whereas at bigger companies you’ll be lucky to make it past the screening stages).
This is how I got my first full-time job back in 2016. I applied to a small Series B startup with about 30 employees through AngelList, and I ended up getting along with the hiring manager and the team. They decided to take a chance on me. After you get a year or two of experience, the industry starts opening up massively and you’ll unlock a lot more options. Take the long view into consideration, and be flexible in the short term because your career is going to be a marathon.
I know some of you might be saying that smaller startups won’t have real “design mentorship”. However, the current biggest gap in your skillset is figuring out how to get things done within an actual company.
Mentorship, even at bigger companies, is mostly self-guided, so don’t assume that just because you aren’t working at a big company, you can’t figure out a mentorship model that works for you. I recommend reading this article to get some new ideas, but also know you’re living in a time of information abundance where a lot of established designers share knowledge and guidance on places like Twitter and Medium.
One of the most common perspective gaps I see in fresh designers is not understanding who the hiring manager is and what they might be concerned about.
The hiring manager is the person responsible for the open role, and they’re usually the person you’ll be directly reporting to if you get hired. They might be a design manager, but they can also be a product or engineering leader if the design team is small.
By the time a hiring manager posts a job opening, they already sort of know what they want the new hire to be working on. Resumes and portfolios are essentially an imperfect way for a hiring manager to figure out whether it looks like you, the candidate, can do the job. What they’re often looking for in your portfolio is to see if your projects map to the existing challenges inside the company:
You can usually figure this out if you do some research. Play around with the product, and take the time to read between the lines of the job description. If people on the team have social media accounts, you can also check to see if they write about their product, and better yet, if you’re scheduling informational sessions and networking, you can ask them directly what people are working on.
The main point here is that you should set up your application — your portfolio, and your resume — to make it extremely obvious to a hiring manager how you’ll fix their problems.
This might mean that while you have one public website with all your projects, you might want to send a tailored PDF presentation that emphasizes aspects of one of your case studies to directly address what you’ve assessed are the problems the startup is trying to solve. In short, take a user-centered approach to your case studies; the audience is the hiring manager.
Cover letters are less useful the bigger the company is you’re applying to, but at smaller places, they can also be a powerful way for you to add context to your work.
This is obviously more work, but accuracy and intention really go a long way in differentiating yourself from the crowd. As an example, here’s a fictional, but realistic scenario of a hiring manager’s day that captures what they might go through, and how you might stand-out:
In between meetings, the Director of Product opens up one of her tabs to sift through a few resumes and portfolios of inbound applicants. She works at a small-ish (~50 employees) B2B startup that works on an email marketing product, and she also manages the sole designer at the company. She’s hiring for a second designer who can work on a new feature of a web dashboard that shows relevant analytics to marketing managers, the startup’s target customer.
The majority of applications she’s going through are from very junior people who all have portfolios that look and feel the same. Lately, she’s been getting frustrated because several senior design candidates decided to go pursue opportunities at much bigger places, but she’s holding out for the right fit. Then, she happens across an interesting application.
While the work experience is admittedly junior, they attached a PDF of a case study of an internal tool the candidate worked on, demonstrating impressive research and interaction design skills. She can’t tell if it was a product that actually shipped, but the candidate interviewed a lot of business analysts, the project’s target users. In her cover letter, she mentioned the similarities she found between these users and marketing managers and made some accurate assessments of the startup’s own marketing dashboard. The Director doesn’t have a hard time imagining how this candidate’s work might fit into the team.
While not the ideal candidate, the Director admires the effort, and decides a phone screen wouldn’t hurt. The candidate now has a chance to make their case in person.
At bigger companies, it’s rare that a hiring manager would be sifting through the raw list of applicants like in the above scenario. They’ll usually have a dedicated person on a sourcing team to filter out applications using predetermined criteria. If it seems like a close enough fit, the sourcers will pass the application along to the hiring team. However, if you’re applying without any experience, you probably won’t ever make it past this step.
The key reason why I’m suggesting smaller startups is because they don’t really do this step. You’ll often have a much more direct line to a hiring manager, which gives you a chance for your personal touch to make an impact and for luck to play a part.
I’ve been there: you go through an interview, thought you did okay, but you hear back with a polite note, something along the lines of “After careful consideration we decided we needed someone with a little more experience”. You want more feedback, but you get back a vague response, if at all.
The obvious reason why most companies want a designer with a few years of experience is because they’re more likely to be productive with little guidance. It took me a few years of being in actual hiring panels to realize that feedback for improvement is hard because the difference is usually in the intangibles. I see junior designers focusing on improving their prototypes and visual artifacts, but your hiring manager is usually concerned with more fundamental issues:
Are you able to work with your manager to escalate appropriate situations?
Are you able to disagree if you’re the sole design opinion and hold your ground when appropriate? Can you juggle both user and business objectives and get to shared solutions?
Can you adapt to different situations and independently run a design process that can satisfy stakeholders and lead to a compelling product for users?
Will you make your engineers’ lives easier or harder? Can you push good design within the technical constraints?
How effectively can you work with peers in business functions who don’t always come from a background of having a user-centered perspective (marketing, sales, operations)?
I’ll go so far as to say the biggest difference between people with experience and someone without is the mindset, not the skillset.
If you’re graduating from a bootcamp as part of a career-transition move, you might have encountered similar situations in a previous job. If you’re a college grad, the easiest analogy I have for you is that it’s going to be a lot of group projects. During the interview process, you can proactively weave in anecdotes that you think illustrate your ability to handle these types of situations.
Don’t feel like you have to have the “correct” answers; just be aware of possible situations and have a reasonable sense of how you might navigate them.
You can feel you did everything right, but sometimes, things just might not turn out the way you wanted. The rejections will be discouraging. I spent months before I landed my first full-time gig, and I definitely questioned my self-worth throughout the process.
However, the main thing I want to offer is, at the end of the day, you are not your job. You can offer a variety of things to the world, but your job — as great as it can be — will still only utilize a fraction of the totality of your skills.
Companies are just groups of people, so use all the creativity and empathy that got you interested in design in the first place to figure out how to make an impression. This post is essentially a list of what I wish knew when I started, so you might have an easier time than I did.
Best of luck.
A lot has been written about how to put together good case studies, so I don’t feel the need to cover it myself. Here are some guides I used in the past:
If you have any additional questions or suggestions on topics to cover, definitely feel free to send an email or DM.