Catching Big Fish to Fry

My journey through design interviews at Facebook, Google, Spotify, Evernote, Asana…(Part 1)

There comes a time in the life of every designer when you start to feel like you are no longer growing. Your work is alright, but you know that you could do better if you’d work in a stronger team with fellow designers to learn from. You know you need a change in order to improve in ways that are just not possible from your lonely desk at some small startup. For some of us, that means “The American Dream.”

It’s been more than nine months since I decided to leave the startup I helped build in to a functioning and promising company called PostHeads, with hopes of reaching a bigger goal. I was ready to take more interesting challenges and help build something that matters. I must admit, like many Europeans in the tech industry, I was dreaming about California.
My goal was to get myself a seat amongst a small team of designers. I didn’t have to be “the best one there,” in fact, I would have preferred to be the newbie! I was starving for a challenge. And so, I decided to reach out to some of the biggest companies out there.

I spent months doing interview after interview, even making it through to the final cut for some of them... but failure seemed more common than I expected. As the saying goes, you need to fail to learn how to reach your goals. That’s why I’m writing this; to share some insights that just may slap you into reality the way it did me, and get you back in your seat to push your goals harder than before.

Started From the Bottom

At the beginning I was too brave. I didn’t want help from anyone and thought I could do it all by myself. After rebuilding my portfolio, résumé, and writing multiple cover letters, (which could be an entire blog post in itself, will post soon) I started to write emails to companies about how good I am and how much I want to work there.

I sent over one hundred emails during the first few weeks with no results. For some, I sent the message multiple times on different platforms. They couldn’t miss me ;)After a while, I figured out that this wasn’t going to work the way I’d imagined. I came to the horrible realization that it was going to take much longer to get any replies. We’re talking about months before I got a reply back from any one.

The Little Green Elephant

About three weeks after I’d filled out their online form, I finally got a response from my first actual recruiter. Hello, Evernote! I personally love this company and use it all the time. In fact, this very blog post has been brewing in it for a while now.

As we began exchanging emails, I became stressed out as hell from my first scheduled Skype call… in English. Thankfully, my recruiter was wonderful. She helped with everything and answered all my questions in a timely fashion.

In order to prepare myself for the interview, I searched everywhere for questions/answers posted by other designers who’ve gone through this sort of thing. I wrote them down and even added my own answers. This method is said to help to remember the answers more clearly, especially if your English is less than fluent.

If you’re interested, here’s that document with the questions >>
Practice makes perfect! But the truth is that even if you know all the answers, you won’t get far without one little secret weapon — confidence! I have my lovely girlfriend Marina (native English speaker) to thank for that one. Thanks to her, I was able to improve my English communication skills at an insanely fast pace.
Now for the first Skype call. It started by me introducing myself: who I am, where I come from, my basic work background, and so forth. I had a few minutes to show off some of my projects and I got to talk about why I’m interested in working at Evernote. The designers I was talking to asked a few questions about my design preferences and techniques, such as my opinion on Flat design, Skeuomorphism, and how I would solve some UX problems. It didn’t feel too difficult or tricky. The entire call took about 45 minutes.

Once that was over, I had to wait for the recruiter to email me again. This only took a few days, but to my disappointment, she did not send good news. As she so politely wrote, I was not the right fit for the position they were hoping to fill. I was starting to get how it all worked… almost nobody gets the job after just one interview. The good news is I got through my first interview and had a positive learning experience. I now had enough confidence for next round.

Breaking Point — Instagram for Business

Now that my chance with Evernote was gone, I needed to go deeper. Instead of just emails, I wanted to do something to get people’s attention. I’m lucky enough to have a collection of good designer friends who challenged me to think of my own idea for a product to design and make a case study of. In case you didn’t know, case studies on Behance are hot shit right now!

It was my good friend (and btw awesome designer here in Prague) @stefooo who inspired me to create a product about something I know a lot about and can take inspiration from. After a quick brainstorm we agreed that for me that meant Instagram. An existing application that (at the time) didn’t have a business audience, but could totally flourish with it. The idea was to hit Facebook with it from a less needy angle and see if somebody notices.
Previously, I had been working for about a year and a half on a social media management tool startup as the only designer. I built that baby from scratch until it blossomed into a functioning final product. I think it’s safe to say I know a thing or two about the social media industry. And that’s what Instagram for Business was meant to show. Making an App that can help businesses manage their IG profiles and boost their popularity, reach more fans, etc.
If you want to know more about this case study, take a look >>
I designed the whole thing in less than 3 days, dedicating the entire weekend to the darn thing so that I could publish it at the beginning of the week. What happened next was a whirlwind of exciting events.

Behance is an amazing way to showcase your work for thousands of people to see your work instantly — which is exactly what happened. My case study got a lot of views, comments, and shares on the first day, and just kept on growing. Even @scottbelsky commented and tweeted about it just hours after I published it. I should probably mention that I had almost no followers on Behance at the time.

A few days later an article about it popped up on TheNextWeb… boom! That’s exactly what I needed. This was going to be a surefire shot to the top, I thought. Turns out I thought wrong. Believe it or not, I did not get that many job offers, and from the ones that I did get, most of them weren’t even that interesting. I wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled or disappointed. Mostly my little idea had been a pretty fun experiment so far.

Subject: Hello from Facebook

At first I thought someone’s making fun of me. You don’t get an email with “Facebook” in the subject that often unless it’s some annoying notifications from you account. And mine are turned off.

To my sweet surprise, I opened up the email to a pleasant message from a Facebook recruiter asking if I had time to talk about some possibilities to work together. Of course I had time! We scheduled the calls as soon as they’d go and began discussing my work and their ideal candidate. Everything was peach and dandy as I sailed through the interviews, finally landing my Skype call with one of their designers.
I don’t believe that it’s the same with every candidate. The number of calls, what questions the designer will ask you, or even who you will talk to. But for sure there are patterns and things you need to prepare for and be ready to answer. I don’t need to talk about every single Skype call and with who I had it with because that’d just be useless. Instead, here is an overview of what I learned from my few calls before being invited for an in-person one-day interview marathon.

1. Introduce Yourself In the Best Way Possible

Be ready to talk about yourself in a smart way. Don’t ramble on about everything from your past. Try to point out the best of you in a few short sentences. No one wants to know how many siblings you have, from what city you are, or that you started with your first website at age 14. Just pick the top jobs and/or projects you’ve had for the last two or three years, briefly summarize what were you doing there, how it helped you to improve, and swiftly move on to why you moved to another opportunity.

Make a point to do some research on the person you’re interview with. Find things in common and use those as conversation boosters. If your background is in digital agencies and the person you’re talking with happened to be an agency veteran too, point it out! You can use these subtle connections to your advantage as the conversation flows.

This is pretty much what all the first few interviews are about. Talking about yourself, what motivates you, why you want to work there, how your background and experience can help them, etc.

But remember! Be excited, confident, smile but always stay humble!

2. Describe 2-3 Projects You Worked On

Pick your best stuff, obviously. The key element here is to know how to describe your projects easily to people who never saw it before.

  • What’s the idea of the product
  • Who worked on it and what was your exact role
  • What was the main problem you were solving and how you solved it
  • Tell in at least one sentence the product timeline, if you did research, how long was wireframing, prototyping, final UI, etc.
  • It’s good to mention how you were testing the app through different production phases
  • Describe main features on prepared screenshots, why you made UI the way you did
  • Show a few examples of small details you made there and what problem it was solving
  • Be ready to answer questions about every single pixel you made, everything in your design needs to have some valid reason why
  • And of course if you would change something now, why or how was it to work with developers

3. Design Critique

This one’s interesting. The whole point of one of the Skype calls was to pick an app which you both use and talk about it. What you think are pros and cons.

Don’t talk too much bullshit about the app you picked. If you find something you don’t like, be ready to say how you can make it better instead of whining about how awful it is. Again, it’s nice to find out more about your interviewer, his style of work, or some apps you both like or designed. A little cheating never killed nobody ;)

These calls are more about showing who you are and what you can do. They’re also testing your personality: if you’re nice to talk to, if you’re stressing out in front of video calls, and if you know how to use your humor appropriately.

A Day at Facebook HQ

After getting through a series of Skype calls I was invited for a one-day in-person interview at Facebook HQ. For me, this meant my first trip to the USA — all expenses covered by Facebook. I was pretty stoked, in case you were wondering.

This was it! The final interview! The plan was to arrive in the morning with a 45 minute presentation about my work to present in front of a few lead designers. After that, I was told I could spend about the same amount of time with each of those designers separately, to talk about the presentation, my work, design exercises, and anything else they wanted to know about me.

It took me about a week to prepare for the presentation. In the end it basically comes down to putting your best works into a pdf, ideally showcasing just two projects in detail. Similar to the things you may have already discussed in the Skype calls, but this time with a bit more detail and some nice imagery to back up your process.

For me, the toughest part was to get the timing right. I had 45 minutes to talk about my work without getting sidetracked or confused. This can be a challenge for anyone that has not done a presentation before. If you end up having to prepare a presentation like this, I really suggest you to write down every single word you want to say and read it million times, to really make sure you’ve got the timing figured out and won’t get stuck talking in circles about the same thing for fifteen minutes.

Another rule is to put less text and more images. That does not mean 100 slides! Be selective. Try having less slides, but more to talk about with each one rather than flipping through your presentation like a picture book. I struggled with this issue just days before my final interview, when I tried it in front of my friends in Palo Alto. Their feedback was easy to understand. Apparently it was just as confusing watching those 50 slides as it was talking about them. I had too many images, was getting too technical with my examples, and I was trying to say too much while skipping between screens. No bueno.

So, yeah… I deleted 1/3 of the presentation less than 24 hours before the interview. I was using my jet lag for my own benefit, making these changes in the wee night hours. Better late than never, right?☺

Ready for the big show! I took a cab to the HQ, feeling more excited than stressed out. After figuring out where to go, I finally started presenting. Those dreaded 45 minutes went by so fast. It was cool, I really enjoyed it and I even got to make a few good jokes.

Once that was over, I was on to my one-on-one chats with each individual designer. Each conversation had a different dynamic and flow. I really felt honored to be able to talk about my work with designers I truly respect and in a way look up to. Each of them took me to a different section of the campus to show me how it all works. I even got to play billiard and have a nice lunch as a part of one interview.

The entire day went by smoothly and I enjoyed every moment. I had a good feeling inside that somehow it was all going to be okay… though I did get a little lost while trying to exit the campus, but I guess I wasn’t the first one.

Since it was my first time in the States, there was no way I was just going to get on a plane and fly back home right away. No sir, I took to the streets! To the streets of San Francisco, that is. It took another day to really shake off the jet lag, but thanks to Rasto I had a nice place to come home to and good company to spend my first few evenings in California with.

The Result

A few days after I came back home I got a message from my recruiter asking about my years of experience, schooling, etc… information needed for filing a working Visa. So, I thought it’s happening and it means I’m in!

Unfortunately I was celebrating a little too early. After a few nervous emails we discovered that my years of experience and unfinished schooling with just one year of university it’s not even possible to apply for the H1B Visa. Game over. Of course this all felt really disappointing after all the effort and time, but on the other hand I got a chance to see what all the hype is about and an experience that taught me something truly important.

Failure: One Big Win

Sometimes you can’t control the results of things with just your skill level, motivation, or passion to do great stuff. What’s more important is to have a grasp on what you can learn from your failures and how this may affect your next steps.

I was broken at first. And I admit, it took me few days to get through it (and a few drinks). But in the end I was lucky to even get through something like this. I had a chance to show my work to some of the world’s top designers, talk with them, collected some good advice from them, and my name became more visible in the design scene.
( And of course the free trip to California☺)

This is Only the Beginning

After failing in a big way, I took the best from it and tried even harder the next time. Now when I approach any company about a job or collaboration, I have the inside scoop and my own experiences as tips for how to be more effective with presentations and getting in contact with top-notch designers I want to talk to.

Just a few days after my Facebook adventure I got scheduled an interview with Google, Asana, and later Spotify. I’ll leave that for another article where I would like to describe more about how to communicate with recruiters, write cover letters, get introduced by friends, and other goodies.

I hope you enjoyed reading my story and am happy to accept your enthusiasm with shares and comments.