I spent the whole 2020 interviewing and here is what I’ve learned

Preface

As it could not be more emphasized ever, storytelling is becoming an essential skill, if not the most essential skill, for designers. For the past few years of working experience, I’ve told many stories: problem statement, user journey, task flow, etc. Ironically, I don’t think I have ever told a story of myself anyhow. To those who don’t know me, I am a 99% “anti-social social club member”, who is quite conservative in posting any personal opinions or activities on social media. To my acquaintances, I indeed disappeared for a whole year, of course partially thanks to COVID. Really until this week, I finally had the chance to look back through this long~long~ journey, both physically and mentally, with 26 companies interviewed, 16 on-sites, >100 interview sessions, and 1 offer (;<). There was a strong sense of obligation emerging in my mind that it was time to share what I had experienced through these numerous interviews and some lessons I had learned from this “1-year-full-time-job”.

In fact, I have been thinking about this post for at least the past 6 months. After leaving my previous position at Houzz, I really have been exploring various opportunities, chatting with all kinds of recruiters/hiring managers, and struggling in figuring out the next step of my career path. Along with this journey, I’ve tried many approaches. Some of them turned out to be way more effective than others. I would like to note them down as well in this post, hoping to provide some help to designers who are currently struggling in similar dilemmas as I did.

1. Look For a Matched Job, Not a Dream Job

Like everyone else, I have been dreaming about working in a company with great benefits, great culture, great teammates, great products, great everything(and I still do). However, after several waves of scouting and interviewing, I finally realized a crucial fact: there is no such a thing. There were opportunities with big names, great benefits but also with requirements of a ridiculously large amount of working experience; There were also young startups that were much easier to get access to, but meanwhile more chaotic. At that moment, I was confessing to myself that if I was already struggling in earning one single offer, then it would be extremely unlikely to get a perfect one. So after a few rounds of interviews, I started to be more realistic and try to prioritize my application criteria:

Criterion 1: B2B(2C) — That’s the main reason why I decided to leave my last job — I want to switch gear back to the enterprise world at this time;

Criterion 2: Research-oriented— After working in several different environments, I realized I enjoy myself more in investigating complex problems before jumping into pixel-perfect solutions;

Criterion 3: Mid-senior — I was not sure if I could tag myself a “Senior Designer” but I was expecting a “Mid Level” position;

Other soft measurements included: Location> Project > Compensation> Team Set-up. I call them “soft” here mainly because there are so many factors that could impact the situation, which are the facts you won’t be able to easily find out from job descriptions or HR chats.

Deciding which company/position to apply for wasn’t an easy job for me at first, as there were dozens of new postings jumping out on my LinkedIn feed and each of them looked delicious. In this case, knowing what mattered to me really helped funnel opportunities from a limitless ocean into a handful of best-matched drops. If I could travel back to a year ago, I would rather abandon those unrealistic fantasies from the beginning and start focusing on those opportunities that were not perfect but with the characteristics that I cared about the most. BTW, I believe this could also be applied to applicants’ evaluation from companies’ perspectives: stop expecting perfect candidates!

Tool&Source: I was using a form provided by Candor as the starting point for companies’ hiring statuses (Thank you Leeyen for sharing this with me :>)

https://candor.co/hiring-freezes

2. Control The Pace

For the past year, I was basically shuffling between two states:

  1. “I don’t have any interviews this week. I am hopeless”;
  2. “I have to finish 2 portfolio reviews, 1 on-site, plus 1 design exercise within this week. I am burned out!”

I have to say that I was really enjoying my “Resignation Gap” for the very first couple of months. I kept everything in slow motion, getting up at 10 am for a running, spending the whole week on polishing the homework of my game design courses, watching tons of movies(mostly 80’s and 90’s HK movies), and at the least priority, applying for 1 or 2 random jobs a week. Everything looked chill and comfy until one day-I realized that I had been unemployed for more than 6 months and there was no positive signal at all for a turnaround. All of a sudden, I felt I was like a pupil who spent the whole summer vacation catching butterflies and found the homework absolutely untouched the night before the school day.

As a sort of like a PTSD symptom, I started applying for whatever positions I could find and replying to every single message from recruiters. Thanks to my “diligence”, I successfully pivoted my interview routine from “monthly basis” to “daily basis”. Starting from last October, I had at least 3 months’ high-strength interviews. It’s hard to believe that I was so ambitious and overconfident about myself with 3 HR chats side by side in a day or 2 on-sites scheduled in a week. And you know what, my eagerness didn’t pay back and even got things worse. I started feeling exhausted, scattered, paranoid, and trying to find every excuse to escape from interview preparations. I bet these symptoms were so obvious that all of my interviewers would easily tell. As a result, I failed to acquire any offer during that period of time. I crushed myself.

For the whole week after that, I did nothing but thinking about how to adjust my pace. I wanted to be neither too laid back nor too rushed. Instead, I was trying to figure out that sophisticated balancing point between these two states. I started to avoid phone calls before 10 am; I learned to remember to double-check my calendar before providing availability; I tried to focus on one thing at a time instead of double-dipping. It really took me quite some time to eventually come up with a revised routine:

  • ≤ 2 HR calls per day (morning & afternoon)
  • 1 hiring manager chat or portfolio review per day
  • 1 on-site interview per week
  • If the calendar is fully occupied for the next 2 weeks, then I would stop applying for new opportunities

Having a balanced pace didn’t give me an offer immediately, but at least prevented me from collapsing again. After all, job-hunting is just like all other sports: mastering a good tempo is everything.

3. Really Know Your Audience

When I looked back through the whole journey, “know your audience & prepare accordingly” sounds more or less a basic skill. However, I don’t think I knew the true meaning behind it back then. Of course, I was still doing normal homework like all other candidates: browsing interviewers’ LinkedIn profiles, investigating into companies’ products&values, reading Glassdoor reviews, etc. (In fact, I was even following some great designers’ Medium posts, podcasts, side-projects. I will attach several of them at the end of this chapter.) But when it comes to story-telling, I won’t say I did a fair job in walking interviewers through what I did, the problems I solved, and the impact I brought.

For the very first 6 months, I didn’t even prepare a presentation deck for portfolio reviews. I guess I was quite confident of my online portfolio which took me >3 months to build out from scratch. So during portfolio review sessions, I just simply walked my audiences through the design process by constantly scrolling the page. The result? It turned out my audiences were either confused(they didn’t get the story at all) or tired(they felt visually offended by the endless scrolling). After several failed sessions, I finally realized the value of a structured deck if I want to tell an interesting, guided, and seamless story.

Constant scrolling offends interviewers’ eyes
Customerized slides perform better in telling appealing stories

Then, my challenge became “How to come up with a well-structured deck to showcase my design thinking and story-telling?”, which could be further split into two topics: Project Selection & Story Structure.

3A. Project Selection

When it comes to the question of which project(s) should be selected as presentation sample(s), I don’t think I managed to come up with a perfect strategy as there were multiple factors impacting my decisions.

Factor 1: Company Type- From my observation, most big, mature, well-established companies would embrace the presentation with diverse project types based on a simple rule: they want to hire someone well-rounded and able to function well in various environments/teams/departments. On contrary, other smaller, younger, start-up companies may prefer candidates talking about something more relevant to whatever they are currently doing and jumping into design details sooner than later.

Factor 2: Time- Another factor I needed to consider was how much time I had for my presentation. If I had around 30 mins, I would go straight to focus on 1 project that was the most relevant to my audiences(with my best guess). If I had 45–60 mins, I would consider covering 2 dramatically different projects regarding scope/goal/responsibility to better showcase my versatility.

Considering both two factors, I ended up with 3 diverse project pieces: a 2-year 0–1 project, a rapid feature improvement, a design system revamp. And based on “who I am going to present this to” and “how much time I have”, I was consistently adjusting my project selection strategy.

An OCD Google Drive may also contribute to the presentation customization

3B. Story Structure

Back to the topic “know your audience”, compared to “what to tell”, “how to tell” is even a harder question to answer. I may be able to predict that my diner loves eggs, but it’s nearly a mission impossible to tell how he/she would like the eggs to be cooked. Sunny-side-up? Fried? Boiled? The preference is unknown for individual diner, not to mention diners’ tastes could differ dramatically from each other.

In the beginning, I started with the plainest, most straightforward story-telling structure: listing out all design steps chronologically, and one by one, elaborating each phase with what happened, what we wanted to do, what I did specifically…

Chronological design process, nahhh….

I think I didn’t realize there was any problem with this cascading narrative until one day when I had the chance to talk with a brilliant designer Yana from Airtable. She shared me a Medium post written by its Head of Design-Chad, mainly talking about how he would review candidates’ portfolios/presentations as an interviewer; And as a candidate, how to hit all the marks that interviewers care about the most. (I strongly recommend anyone, no matter during interviewing stage or not, to read this post to have a better understanding of your audiences’ value points.) I think it’s really at that moment, I finally realized that the chronological story-telling seemed to be a big no-no for a designer who intends to grow into a more senior level. An interesting argument of this article is: Write about what’s unique.

Don’t just say that you follow best practices: Personas, Contextual Inquiry, Card Sorting, blah blah. Everyone has that same list. Show me why your persona doc is better than any other, or why the way you capture behavioral states should be signed and framed. If your design solution is novel, tell me. If none of them are, that’s not so great, but then tell me why working with you is different. You are a unique snowflake, dammit, so hand me the magnifying glass.

My perception of this point was: if there is nothing really special about one specific design exercise/practice that I did, I can skip it or walk it through in a glimpse. There is no necessity to include every single piece of detail in the presentation. I have to say my presentation tension was immediately mitigated after acknowledging this. Shortly after, I decided to abandon the methodology that had been used since I graduated and started only focusing on answering essential questions:

1. Starting-point: Problem

2. End-point: Goal

3. How to get there: Design Decision

These 3 things have also been mentioned, asked, challenged across the job-hunting journey of mine for the whole year. And it turned out that the revised story-telling structure was MUCH easier for my audiences to digest and relate.

If I have to tell my story in 1 min, I’ll ensure to mention these 3 things

In a nutshell, here are some of my advice:

  1. Deck → Better-structured deck → Customized deck;
  2. Say goodbye to “I did this, then that” narratives; Say hi to “Problem-Goal” framework;
  3. Everything happened for purposes, so should your design practices. Talk about what you did, but talk more about why you did them.

Tool&Source:

Hiring a product designer: how to review portfolios -Chad Thornton

Tap to Dismiss -Linzi Berry

Cells and Pixels -Koji Pereira

4. It’s OK To Be Not OK

Lots of things happened to this world in 2020, so did my interviews. I still remember my first interview was with Google back in June. I passed phone screening, no problem; passed 1:1, no problem; passed design challenge, no problem; right before I was about to celebrate, rejected by its hiring committee all of sudden with no feedback. I was literally bummed for a week: no application, no social connection, no portfolio, no Netflix, nothing… At that time, I thought this was it; this was supposed to be the end of the world; there was no hope of myself whatsoever.

It’s important to keep confident to impress and convince your hiring managers. However, I also feel this could be a process of confidence consumption, meaning if things aren’t going as well as predicted, you will start questioning yourself. Have I fallen behind my peers? Is there anything wrong with me? Maybe I can’t be a good designer? These are all typical questions that I was asking myself on those low-tide days. The more I thought about these questions, the more guilty I felt about myself for not being able to cheer up shortly. Then the toxic loop began. In the end, I spent most of my time in neither preparation nor mental break, but regretting and self-questioning.

When I look back at this 1-year-job-hunting journey, it was such an essential lesson to realize that interviewing was meant to be an unpredictable, chaotic, frustrating, even torturing game, where gamers(us) were supposed to feel “I am a loser” (Dark Soul) much more often than “I am doing great”(Animal Crossing). So I should have every single right to be “Not OK”.

Each time when I felt “Not OK”, I found there were certain things that could really cheer me up:

  1. Pressing the “Pause Button” for any interview-relevant things for the day;
  2. Working out, hiking, biking, or whatever shifts my focus from screens;
  3. Developing a new hobby: (eg. I started making tank scale models);
  4. Hanging out with friends: then I realized that everyone was, more or less, suffering from different things- I was not alone;
  5. Playing music, either with instruments or throat;
  6. Playing video games as a little get-away from the crucial reality;
  7. Mental-healthy food: I believe everything could be solved by a scoop of Tin Pot. If not, then two.

Tool&Source: My wife and I were sticking to Adriene’s 30-day Yoga program for workouts and meditation. Check her out on Youtube!

Breath — A 30 Day Yoga Journey | Yoga With Adriene

5. This Shall Also Pass

I think I’ve talked a lot above(maybe too much) about how I was struggling in grinding to a new job and how I was trying different methods to solve my physical and mental problems. At last, there is one magic word I would love to share. It’s Chuck Noland’s volleyball “Wilson”; It’s Harry Potter’s “Espectro Patronus”; It’s Andy Dufresne’s Rock Hammer; And for me, it’s a creed that reignited my hope even in the darkest days.

This shall also pass

I was telling myself: No matter how painful I am right now, it shall pass; No matter how great the final offer I’ll acquire, it shall eventually pass too. After all, I won’t stick to one job forever. So why bother to all-in for the final duel if it will get back to you again shortly? May everyone, including myself, have the courage to confront upcoming challenges again and again.

Credit

I want to say “Thank You” to all recruiters, hiring managers, my wife, and whoever supported me along this journey. Finding a good job was much harder than I expected, and I certainly cannot make it without your support.

Design