The First Steps to Landing Your First Job

Originally published on Medium with Google Design. 

It’s your final year in school, and you can’t wait to graduate. In just a few months, you’ll be out in the real world free from essays and midterms. But just as soon as you’ll enjoy your newfound freedom, you’ll also be faced with the daunting task of figuring out where you will be in the next few months and landing a job you want. As designers, there are many potential paths to take, from entering into the agency world, to joining a design team in a large company or startup, to striking out on your own.

We’re Andre and Fiona, former interns at Google who’ve both returned for full-time positions on the Android and Material Design teams respectively. We’ve pulled together some advice for preparing for your next big step into the workforce. Whether you’re a designer or not, we hope these tips will offer some clarity and confidence as you set off for your next chapter.

Get involved

You’ve heard the statistics and have probably had moments of self-doubt, but applying and landing your first big job doesn’t need to be a scary and intimidating endeavor. Companies understand that as a new grad you won’t have much experience. What they look for is enthusiasm and talent. They like to see that you are willing to spend time growing and learning as much as you can. Do you have the ability to apply the learnings such as design tools and process to solve problems and contribute to projects independently and collaboratively? Not only do they look for hard skills, but they are also hiring for attitude, character, and culture fit. Proactivity and self-awareness are great traits to carry.

Experience doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of a full-time job. Experience can come from volunteer work, freelance gigs, hackathons, and side projects. Get involved in the design community. Immerse yourself in the industry and demonstrate that you have a strong passion and are motivated for growth and learning. Twitter and Quora are both great ways to expand your network. Sharing your experiences on Medium or personal blogs (like this article!), can be a positive way to demonstrate your personality and unique voice. Don’t be afraid to reach out to designers that you’re inspired by and ask for advice or share your work!

Remember, recruiters and hiring managers are thinking, “Who is this person and what are they going to bring to my team? Can they think outside of the box?” Just the same way a senior designer is going to come in and talk about his or her work experience or portfolio, your job is to come in and show them how excited and passionate you are to start your career and how hard you’re going to work to knock their socks off.

Here are some great organizations, events, and classes that you should check out to get involved:

Know yourself

So you know you’re super excited to get your foot in the door and start working, but maybe you’re a little unsure of which type of company to go for. Ultimately, you have to understand what your values are and what you want out of your first job. How do you want to grow? What do you want to learn? You should strive for the company that has the same core values as you which will make your career more meaningful. Every company is different but there are some generalities to consider when you’re trying to find the right fit:

  • Large-size companies are good large-scale impact. They have access to tons of resources and can help with your career path but can be limiting to specific roles.
  • Startups & small agencies tend to have a higher risk and instability but they allow a breadth in roles with less bureaucracy and it typically moves faster which can be exciting.
  • Large agencies are good for having creative freedom, providing an opportunity to expand one’s stylistic range due to the wide range of clients but can often feel as though there is less ownership.
  • Freelance jobs allow you to have career freedom with less constraints, but it can be also be less stable and require more self-management.

Another thing to consider is whether you want to take some time off after graduating to do something fun like travel. Regardless of what you decide, know that there’s no need to rush. Taking a few months of personal time before starting full-time can also be a good way to learn more before you settle into the “adult” world. Fiona took a few months to go backpacking across Europe and Western North America which helped her recharge before returning to Google. It can be a great way to end one chapter before starting a new one. When we were trying to decide which path to pursue, people offered a lot of advice and opinions. In the end, we took it most with a grain of salt because our processes and learning styles are particular to us.

Think about where you see yourself in a few years. There are endless amounts of resources and mentors you can learn from. You need to ask yourself these questions, talk to a lot of people, and ultimately go with your gut. Below we’ve gathered some thoughts from fellow friends who have tried out different paths.

Sahana Kumar, Frog

“While I was trying to decide what kind of company I wanted to work for, I had to think about it in terms of what I wanted to learn, and how I wanted my career to progress. I had had experience at a small experience agency, a start up, and a large tech company, and had never quite found my fit in terms of projects I felt passionate about, and an opportunity to learn what I felt I needed. I decided that I wanted to apply exclusively to agencies because of the variety of projects I would get to experience. Although tech is super fun and lucrative, I felt I needed the well rounded experience that an agency provides. I get the opportunity to work on multidisciplinary teams and first hand experience conducting research with all different types of users. Working at an agency was an easy transition from the school environment and I find myself challenged and excited every day! I may be ready to transition and focus on a product in a tech company someday, but that will be later down the line.”

Sarah Hum, Facebook

“It was very important for me to try different things while I was still in school because I had no idea what I wanted. I started with the agency route and turned to tech, trying both startups and large companies. I will always lean towards startups. I love the fast-paced, do-or-die environment. I love the satisfaction of working with an all-star team all aligned under the same goals and all experts in their domains.

That said, I knew Facebook would give me the strong foundation that I wanted in a full-time role after school. I wanted to be challenged by the insane amount of talent here and learn how to ship products at scale. Of course, I also needed to believe in the product I would design for and working on Messenger has been very fulfilling. Facebook was an easy choice after I could match my needs with the company that would deliver. I would have had a much harder time making the decision without the internship experiences.”

Adil Majid, Spire

“School had always been incredibly frustrating for me. I didn’t like working from seemingly arbitrary prompts and having my work enter the void after being submitted. My top priority after college was to find a place where the things I designed were solving real problems and where the quality of my work would be determined not by the instructor’s tastes, but by the user. I joined a startup in order to work on a small, nimble team, be close to our users, and focus on shipping instead of endlessly iterating.
One downside is that there’s less room for wildly experimental products (since startups have less money to spend on products that may not ship). This same constraint also adds to the excitement — a startup’s survival depends on being laser-focused on providing a quality experience for its users. There’s no strong brand to rely on if you ship a bad product. As a designer at a startup you’re required to be intimately familiar with your users, be constantly user testing, and collect and analyze data in order to delight your users.”

Talk the talk

After you’ve narrowed down your options, you’ll soon find yourself interviewing. Our best tips for having successful interviews is to be yourself and show your passion. Practicing will help you talk about your process clearly and thoughtfully, but don’t overdo it either. Companies want to be able to see and understand how you think about design and how you’d approach a problem. Your ability to communicate an idea clearly is extremely important, so saying what is meant rather than hurling an arsenal of buzzwords is about clarity.

Rita DeRaedt, Google

“There’s such a thing as over practicing and too many mock interviews. Be yourself. Have a conversation. You get hired because you’re being yourself, but if you get hired because you’re a very rehearsed version of yourself, you won’t like the job.”

In addition to being able to talk about your process, it’s also important to have an online portfolio that highlights your best work and your personality. It’s always better to give the viewer a good sense of who you are, instead of just slapping a name on a website with some projects. You can show your personality through imagery and voice in your process. Tell a story and make sure your passion is expressed clearly in your work.

Evan Coutre, Box

“Interviewing and designing are similar in that they are both an iterative process. It is very unlikely you will get it right the first time. Stay encouraged. Treat it as a critique and collect as much feedback as you can and try to gauge what is working and what isn’t. Iterate accordingly until you start to get some positive feedback or results, then look to improve other parts of your process whether it’s your portfolio, your presentation, or how you sell yourself and your work.
There is a time for learning and a time for earning. When comparing companies to apply to or work for, a fair compensation package is important, however your focus coming out of college should be to find a place where you can learn the most. What you earn now is insignificant to the potential you have to earn later in your career if you maximize your learning opportunity now and become really good at what you do. Individuals learn differently: some learn by doing, some learn from others, and some need a happy medium between mentorship and autonomy. Know yourself and the best opportunity for you to learn and maximize for that.
After redesigning my portfolio and doing a couple interviews, I got to a point where I was confident that I could get past any initial phone screen or portfolio walkthrough, however I couldn’t seem to break through the final step of giving an onsite portfolio presentation. Without much feedback to go off of I could assume that there may have been a lot of variables involved with the decision and maybe I just wasn’t the exact right person at that time, but regardless of the circumstance I knew that I could improve. I reached out to others who had gone through a similar process to see what they thought made them successful and just like I did with the earlier parts of the interview process, after a few tries, I learned what interviewers were looking for, how to better articulate and sell my work, treating it more like a design problem until I saw better results, ultimately leading to offers from multiple companies.”

If you want a full in-depth guide on interviewing for design positions check out our friend, Andrew Hwang’s guide

Embrace the journey

For us, being interns at Google vs. full-time designers is different, but not that different. As an intern you are already treated like a full-time employee. The great thing about Google is that everyone has something they are excited to learn about so in the end, we all feel like students with a never-ending desire to learn more about technology, design, and ourselves. Take time during your first few months to really immerse yourself in the work culture and meet people. These people can become lifelong work friends as well as really helpful mentors. There are talented and smart people all around you, so be sure to take advantage of that.

It can be challenging being the young, new member on the team. It’s easy to feel the imposter syndrome. Remind yourself that your youthfulness and inexperience is actually an asset to the team because you are part of the next generation we are designing for — new grads carry fresh perspective, new ideas, and no prior experience or assumptions, which can be really helpful to a team of designers that know their work inside and out.

Every job and every person is different. The important thing to remember is that your are embarking on a journey, and you should treat it that way — with open eyes and a willingness to learn along the way. Focus on what you want to achieve right now in your life. See how you can combine design with other interests. Throw yourself into projects that make you feel excited and motivated. Be fearless with your decisions because this industry is always changing and so should you. #TheFirstSteps

This article was co-written by Fiona Yeung and Andre Tacuyan. Fiona is a UX Designer on the Material Design team at Google. Andre is a UX Designer on the Android team at Google.