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Career growth through mentorship and self-discipline

I often get asked for product design career advice, particularly how I got started. In my mind, career growth boils down to two things: mentorship and self-discipline.

The two are not mutually exclusive, but harmonious. Self-discipline leads to mentorship and mentorship requires self-discipline.

The question people always ask: “How did you get started?” What they mean is how did you get the first opportunity when you start from what feels like nothing.

How do you find a mentor? I equate it similar to falling in love…you just know, and it happens. It require the desire to actually do it, building that relationship, and self-discipline.

The desire to actually do it

Ten years ago I was not doing design. In fact, when I graduated college, the iPhone was not released yet, and I was not doing design as a full-time job. I was working at an administrative assistant at a non-profit after earning a bachelor of fine arts in painting. I vividly remember there was that moment where I acknowledged the desire to do something else. It was the statement “I don’t want want to do what I’m doing now, but something else”.

The solution for me was a quit my job with nothing lined up. I instilled The Fear, which was I had to find a design job in order to survive or find another job doing something else. That fueled the fire for my desire to do it. This was my “Holy shit, I have to learn to do this stuff” moment, which invoked my infamous phase of going to Zoka Coffee every morning and teaching myself to code and build websites.

Eventually, I got hired by ExactTarget as a production specialist on their global accounts team.

Something out of nothing

The question: What do you put in your portfolio when you don’t have any experience yet?

Make something. Anything. If you are starting out the bar is set quite low, so focus your time on making as much as you can. By making something you can get feedback on it. Get feedback and lots of it.

When I was working at ExactTarget, I would spend my evenings working on “pitches” for prospective clients. They were projects I dreamed of us landing. Nobody gave me direction to work on these ideas but it was simply my desire to work on more things to build my skills up.

A design I made in 2009 of what a NIKESTORE app could be like. Nobody told me to do it. I just started working on it.

I shared these ideas internally to spark ideas and conversations. Most ideas were terrible and not very well-designed, but I got in the habit of making The value of it was that I wasn’t afraid to show people ideas, and get feedback from them on making it better.

Some things you can do if you need to generate more portfolio pieces:

  • Do pro bono work. Typically, I would not suggest to do free work, but if you are starting out, what is most important is having projects to work on.
  • Work with a non-profit you are passionate about that can could use volunteer time. Make sure you set the expectations so it does not become an unpaid job.
  • Do a design exploration project. Have a favorite brand? imagine what a VR app could be for them.

Mentorship

The key to any successful career is having a good mentor. This is someone who will teach you what they have learned, including both what to do and what not to do. A mentor is very special. They basically advise you for free, because they believe in you and you seek that relationship.

Before seeking a mentor, accept the fact that you need someone to teach you. It is often not a good relationship to be taught by someone when you feel you have not accepted that you need to be taught. Listen to your mentor. You may deviate to your own approach/style in the future but in the early days, absorb everything you can. Don’t waste your time and your potential mentor’s time if you are not ready for it.

The first design mentor I had in my career was Marie Thacker. When I met her she was consultancy called Awesome Giant. I was working at ExactTarget but wanted to explore mobile apps (ET was mainly email marketing) and Marie hired me to do some contract work. At the time, I barely knew what UX even meant.

My first project with her was an iPad app. She did all the product definition and brainstorming with the client, wireframes, then handed that off for me to do visual design for the interface. She gave me very good feedback that was constructive and helped me improve. It obviously wasn’t my best work but was approved in her eyes. There was enough potential to work with.

We built a strong relationship quickly. I would send her emails not related to projects which were focused on UX Design in general. I wanted to know how to get better and how I could help out more, even if it was for free.

I never formally asked Marie to be my mentor. It just happened. I never sent an email saying “Hey, will you be my mentor?” or went to some mentoring event*. It just happened.

I want to share an email between Marie and I (she gave me permission to use it); an example of many emails exchanged between us.

It turns out I love Omnigraffle ;)

If you look at my email, I am basically asking for free advice, and Marie responded with advice. A mentor will invest in YOU because they see potential growth.

You’ll get emails of support like this when you leave your job to freelance:

Mentorship basically comes down to someone investing their time in you because they believe in you, and you working as hard as you can to make the most of the opportunity they gave you. You don’t want to let them down.

What you should do with your mentor:

  • Meet on a cadence (whether it is quarterly, monthly) to show what you have been doing
  • Ask for feedback on what you can improve on (this can sting, but it is what you need to hear)
  • Ask for a few things you can focus on.

The beautiful thing is you don’t have to have one mentor. As you grow in your career you will encounter many people who will help you in certain aspects.

Self-discipline

Discipline is really tough to attain. Passion is why you get up in the morning, focus is when you sit down and spend time working, but discipline is something completely different. Discipline is often saying “no”. It means saying no to doing the things you want to be doing and focusing on what you need to be doing. It means taking the time to attack what you are not goo dat to improve versus staying in your comfort zone. It’s maximizing your time.

Self-discipline is taking what you learn from your mentor and running with it. You don’t ask “What’s next?” but show what is next. It also means leveling yourself up. You need to be self-directed and become an expert at becoming an expert.

My latest mentor Tony has really taught me discipline. By working with him, I learned to clear all distractions and zero in on the goal. This means when we’re working, Twitter, Facebook, and other distractions are off and all energy is on the work. This means taking the extra 15 minutes you have before you get ready for dinner to finish something off, or it means to tell friends you want to focus on a project (though it is good to make time to see friends).

Putting it all together

One memory that stands out is when I had coffee with Robert Eickman, my friend who is an iOS Developer in Seattle, who encouraged me to learn Quartz Composer. I started from knowing nothing about it to it becoming a versitle tool in my collection of skills. Nobody taught me, but I just started making projects up to use it. I would find people who use QC to get advice and watching a lot of videos about it.

On my next client project, they requested interactive prototypes using…Quartz Composer.

Be curious, learn, and make. Repeat until you keep growing in your career.


*There are events put on that are great and you may find your mentor there. I’m just saying that didn’t exist at the time for me.