There was a definitive moment in my career when I realized that I needed a change. I’m sure you’re starting to reflect on that same moment yourself as you’re considering a career in Product Design, UX Design, UX Research, or UI Design.
I’ll tell you my story about how I changed careers from a Growth Marketer to Product Designer without quitting my job or going back to school full-time. I want to help you do the same! I’ll share the tips and advice I was given from the many people more experienced than I who helped me make a successful transition to an Associate Product Designer at my current company.
Know what you want
Conviction and confidence are half the battle when you are wanting to change careers.
I realized that I was unhappy with the work I was doing, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do outside of Marketing. Not everything was wrong, though. There was a reason why I was in my current career at the company I was working for. I worked hard to get the job I had, realizing that at a certain point in time it was exactly what I had wanted.
Identify what in your career is going well. I initially pursued marketing because I found it was the most creatively stimulating degree in business when I was studying at University. I also love working at start-ups, particularly in tech, and the company I am working for is both of those things with exciting growth opportunities.
Acknowledge what is working for you right now and think critically about what isn’t working. Doing this self-reflection will help you form your story when you are interviewing for jobs. For me, I found the marketing position I was in was very numbers-oriented and I would have rather been designing the ads I was running on Facebook. I wanted to be a master of creative tools, like Illustrator and Photoshop, but to also work strategically on solving real problems and providing value to users (product), not selling that value (marketing).
Talk to people
I didn’t wake up the next day after that epiphany and realize that product design was the career that best fit those criteria. It was a long and winding road. I took a hard look at my strengths as well as what kind of work excited me and talked to people whose jobs fit that criteria. I got coffee with every Product Manager, Engineer, Project Manager, Marketing Designer, and Product Designer that would be willing.
Pro tip: buy the person you are meeting with their coffee. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way in showing your appreciation for their time. In COVID times, the best you can do is emphasize how appreciative you are of them taking the time to talk.
Without talking with all of those people within my company and outside of my company I would have never fully understood what it would be like to work in their career.
Try before you buy
It’s one thing to talk about something and another to actually do it and experience it for yourself. I walked away from almost all of those conversations wanting to have that person’s career. Why? Because they were all happy with what they were doing and that is inspiring. This made things more confusing.
How would I know if it was actually for me?
I tried it.
There are infinite resources online, most of them free, for beginner courses on any career (particularly in tech) that you could aspire for. When I initially thought I wanted to be an engineer I enrolled in a 2-day introductory local bootcamp and learned very quickly that I did not want to be an engineer after that.
I remember talking to a Product Designer at my company the week after that whom I connected with prior. I asked him how I could try product design. He gave me a simple exercise to design an app for a pretend time-traveling company. He told me to download the free trial of Sketch and see what I designed in a week.
From then on I was hooked.
I spent hours in a constant state of flow: analyzing different apps, looking at patterns in a way I never had before, studying the visual elements and the user flow like I was really going to sell this time-traveling app. It was cute. It was also a huge sign.
Find a mentor
I met with that same Product Designer regularly for a couple of months, designing different parts of my pretend app, then designing different parts of our company’s app, and soliciting his feedback. These regular meetings helped me shape my visual skills, learn how to take feedback and incorporate it, and learn what kind of things he looks for when critiquing a product.
Outside of my company I connected with many people through various means. Some people I met through General Assembly (where I did my bootcamp, more on this later), some from people my co-workers knew in the industry, and some through chatting with people in local Product Slack channels.
Pretend you are a Product Designer before you are one
This was some of the best advice I ever got from my teacher at General Assembly. Before this too easily becomes a stale piece of business advice like, “dress for the job you want, not the one you have” let me explain myself.
I was already getting deep into learning the tools our Product Designers were using. First, it was Sketch and InVision. Then it was Figma. I continued to find new screens to design that would help improve my visual design skills. I regularly met with Product Designers and other people in the Product organization to learn about real projects at our company and the UX design skills employed in those projects, everything outside of just pretty screens.
I took my conviction and determination to becoming a product designer to my mentor and asked if he would introduce me to the manager of the team. She was nice enough to let me take her to coffee and I told her that I wanted to be on her team.
I shared my story about my journey and the work I had put into deciding that product design is what I wanted to do and that resonated with her. I asked what she wanted to see from me in order to be an eligible candidate for a junior position, if one were to become available.
Her recommendation was to pursue outside education and practice. I asked if I could meet with designers on her team and attend team meetings, if it wasn’t too disruptive. She agreed.
For the next year and a half, yes, a year and a half, I continued to work my marketing job while attending the Product Design team’s regular meetings learning from their discourse and asking to help everybody on the team with absolutely anything to practice my skills.
Find an opportunity to be of value
Being this weird outsider on the team was tough. Thankfully, everybody on the team was warm and accepting of my presence. I remember asking my mentor what the team thought of me hanging around and he said it was flattering in a way to have somebody around that was so excited and determined to do the job that they were doing. That helped me shake off some of the imposter syndrome I was feeling.
Something very important I had learned was that just because I was there to help do free work for the team doesn’t always mean there is work to be shared. Product design work is very involved and changes rapidly which makes it difficult to carve off pieces of that work to simply hand off to somebody. I had a very hard time understanding this because from previous jobs I have had there are so many daily, often tedious, tasks that I would have loved some help on without having to hire somebody.
One of the best pieces of advice I had gotten from another designer on the team was to find an opportunity area and ask to do that work. This was hard, I’m not going to lie. I spent a lot of time talking with everybody on the team and the various other connections I had made to identify a project that was low profile enough, but that would provide real value to the company. The opportunity I focused on was a small internal tools project. A small product that was outside of the purview of all the high profile consumer facing products our company is known for, but something that had so much opportunity and the ability for me to lead design on - to really put my skills to the test.
I approached the product design team manager and proposed that I take on the project. Keep in mind that I had already been hanging out with this team for over six months, so I had already built up good relationships and rapport. Having made my case for why this project would be perfect for a junior employee, how much I would appreciate the opportunity to work on it, and the guarantee that I would work closely with the team, I was off to (pretending) to be a real Product Designer!
I realize that not everybody will have the chance to find an opportunity like this at their company. The advice my teacher at General Assembly gave me was to find real work, wherever that may be. There are small businesses and non-profits that could always use pro-bono work. You’ll need projects to build your portfolio and while getting paid for work is always preferred I will tell you from personal experience that that is hard to find and is competitive. I joined a few local UX designer Slack channels where work is regularly requested but the reality is most people want somebody with experience. As many times as I was the first person to reach out to those job requests, I was turned down time and time again. Admittedly, while I worked hard networking and responding to nearly every job request in those Slack channels there is always more I could have done, like looking at other freelance sites.
Pursue outside education
This topic is critical. Please pay attention.
I think most people do this when they get excited about something new: they look at all the tools and classes that they think they need to buy and spend all this money on a fancy bootcamp or subscription or even consider going back to school full-time.
I have done this before, in error.
The first time was when I thought I was going to be a music producer and spent hundreds of dollars on equipment, software, online courses, and had spent a lot of time researching schools and bootcamps. I don’t regret those decisions and I believe they are necessary to a degree, but be careful about what kind of time and financial investment you are making if you are not confident this is the career move you want to make. There are so many free online resources out there that paying for a bootcamp is not always necessary.
There is a theory called the conscious competence learning theory. In short, when you are learning something new there are four major stages that everybody goes through. First, you super excited, but super naive. Everything is exciting and new and glorious. Then you begin to realize how naive and incompetent you are and your excitement drops. Many times people drop out at this stage because the excitement is done and motivation is lost. It is the perseverance beyond this stage that I recommend you get to before you decide to drop thousands of dollars on an education. For a few months prior to enrolling at General Assembly I had already gone through those two stages and realized how much work I needed to do to become an entry-level Product Designer. It was going to be a lot of time and effort so I asked myself if I am still excited about this career. When the answer was a resounding yes, I knew I was willing to spend thousands of dollars on a bootcamp.
Yes, I did a bootcamp.
Yes, it was expensive.
No, I do not regret it.
Why I enrolled in General Assembly’s UX Design boot camp
- I was 100% confident that I wanted to become a Product Designer, so the cost did not deter me. Also, the reputation the program had at my company was held in high regard.
- I learn best by doing and the hands-on learning the bootcamp offered was a great avenue for this. The learning was all in-person at the time.
- Feedback is incredibly important. Having a professional’s ears and eyes critique your work is invaluable.
- The opportunity to connect personally with my teacher. The bootcamp that I had enrolled in was a one-week, Monday through Saturday, 9am-5pm intensive. Fortunately, our class size was very small (only five of us). I took every opportunity to speak with my teacher one-on-one. He was awesome and allowed me to share his time. We went out to lunch every single day that week and I hammered him with every single question I could think of to squeeze as much out of my time there as I could. He was kind enough to invite me to the evening classes, so I was often there until nearly 10pm each night.
- Structured learning and accountability. I find it so hard to keep myself accountable taking online courses when there is nobody who is asking about your homework or questions about the material the day prior. Having that structured learning and daily accountability for making sure you put that day’s lessons to practice helped keep me on track and motivated.
Be transparent with your manager
Some of the most difficult professional conversations I have had were during that year and a half when I was working my marketing job and moonlighting product design.
Without having those difficult conversations I would not have had the opportunity to interview for the position I have now and make the transition as easily as I had.
This would not have been possible if I did not have early and frequent conversations with my manager about how I wanted to stay at my current company, but that I wanted to be a Product Designer. I had built up a good rapport and had been at my current role for over two years, so it was a conversation I felt comfortable having and honestly I felt I had nothing to lose.
Ok, I definitely had something to lose. My job. There were many times when I thought I was first to be let-go because of my forthrightness with wanting to transition off of the team. I was amazed to have survived COVID-related layoffs back in early-2020.
Through these conversations I was able to work out a situation where my manager was ok with me attending the product design team’s meetings during the work day and working projects for that team. They also had prepared me for a potential transition - if I were to receive an offer after interviewing for the product design team - cross-training the team on the responsibilities of my marketing role. I’m glad they were so confident in my ability to get an offer because the prior months I had spent writing documentation and training the team over Zoom proved to pay off. It was only two weeks from my offer letter to my first day as an Associate Product Designer.
The hard reality of who a company is looking to hire
There was no guarantee that a junior role was going to open up at my company and the pandemic certainly did not help with that timeline. Once things started to cool off and companies began to re-hire I started looking elsewhere. I polished my resume, LinkedIn, and portfolio. I spent hours revising and getting feedback from my mentors. Once I started talking to recruiters I always asked for feedback about my interview and interview materials. I can’t even begin to count the number of revisions I had made to my resume, LinkedIn, and portfolio. It was exhausting.
I spent months talking to recruiters, mostly headhunters, and getting absolutely nowhere. I worked my network to get referrals at big companies that I wanted to work for and was immediately rejected. I felt zeroed out. This in combination to getting rejected for freelance job postings in our local Slack channels I was beginning to feel hopeless.
Companies want somebody with 1-2 years of experience for an entry-level job where you would think you don’t need any experience. It felt like Senior year of college all over again when every company expected two years of experience for an entry-level digital marketing position. I even applied to a number of internships, but it was a hard story to sell: a marketing professional 5 years out of University with some part-time product design experience. I was going against fresh graduates. I got rejected from all of those opportunities.
After some time and tens of phone calls with headhunters later I connected with a recruiter at The Creative Group. When I asked for feedback I typically got good advice and was surprised at how often recruiters were willing to share detailed feedback with me on my interview skills and materials. He was a completely different beast. I never had so much detailed feedback to work with and I ate it up. He helped me shape my story immensely. It was hard to tell the story of a marketer with this odd part-time UX design experience at the same company. He said the first job when making a career transition is always the most difficult and I learned that first-hand. I had applied to numerous jobs having only made it once beyond an initial phone interview before the opportunity at my current company had opened up. It took nearly a year from when I first started looking to when I started my job as an Associate Product Designer.
Checklist for what a company wants to hire
- 1-2 years of professional experience.
- Find pro-bono work, find opportunities at your current company, design your own app and website, find paid work if you can.
- Professional portfolio.
- Have 3-5 really polished pieces on your portfolio. This needs to be beyond pretty Dribble screens. Companies want to know your design process. How you identify a problem, gather research, and propose solutions.
- A good story.
- You need to be able to sell why your past experience all supports the skills you need to be a Product Designer. All of your interview materials should be able to tell this story, write your LinkedIn and resume for the job you want, not the job you have. Relate every experience you have had to UX design.
- Determination to learn.
- This is an entry-level position. You will not have all the skills and there is so much to learn. Companies want to know that you are seeking outside learning, whether you’re reading daily blog posts on medium or taking skillshare classes, that you are excited by learning and are eager to continue learning.
Ending on a note of positivity
There were many times when I felt really bad about how my career in marketing was progressing. It wasn’t. My peers were regularly getting promoted and I was stuck. I did not want to continue my career in marketing, so I had to let that go knowing that I was still going to work hard at my job, but that what was required of me to advance to that next level was not something I was willing to put the time into.
It felt worse when I applied to all of those Product Design jobs and got rejected time and time again. The fact that I was competing for a low supply of entry-level positions particularly among new college graduates felt discouraging.
A real turning point for me in turning around my negativity was when I talked to an engineer who used to be a Marketing Director. She became a director after many years of working her career, was older than I, and started her career over again as a Junior Engineer.
Another person who inspired me was an ex-principal who made the career switch to becoming an engineer, again, starting entry-level with kids who were just coming out of boot camps and this was their first job. What was so encouraging about these people were how humble they were, how hard they worked, and how successful they were.
These people got promoted at accelerated rates than those who just graduated school because they had so much more professional experience that even though it wasn’t direct coding experience, they knew how to be professionals which takes years of experience. I felt encouraged by these people’s stories and held onto that as I went through all of those hard feelings. I had to remind myself that I was fortunate to have done the hard work and reflection on my career to make a change.
You can do this. I had so many times when I felt hopeless and would often turn to negativity and apathy. Keep in mind, too, that I was making this transition in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. You have skills and experience that is unique and valuable to a company as a Product Designer, UX Designer, UX Researcher, or UI Designer - whichever way you swing. Know what your skills are and sell that story.
I hope that I have helped you by sharing my story and the advice I was given by my mentors.
Connect with me on LinkedIn if you want to chat!