I Want a UX Job, but I Am Terrified of Talking to Strangers. How Do I Network?
In my last post, I recommended resources to optimize your resume and cover letters for your job search. I explained how I used a course blog in place of a portfolio. I also suggested setting up email alerts on popular job portals so that the jobs come to you. Most of my advice is specific to the San Francisco Bay Area and addressed to alumni of UX bootcamps, though I hope it will be useful more broadly. This post outlines the second half of your job search strategy: networking in person.
As with most professions, applying cold to UX jobs listed online is a numbers game. You want to send out as many high-quality applications as possible in the hopes that maybe one or two will be seen by human eyes. In-person networking is always more effective, but slightly terrifying. I hope to reduce that terror for you by outlining a general networking plan that you can tailor for your needs.
How Often and Where?
When I was in General Assembly’s (GA) User Experience Design immersive (UXDi) course, I set myself the goal of going to at least one networking event every two weeks. I ended up going to 2–3 on some weeks and none on others. Respect your energy level, especially while you’re doing something as intense as an immersive bootcamp or as demoralizing as trying to break into a new career. Don’t bother going to events that don’t look interesting to you! You won’t get much out of it except an inadequate night’s sleep.
I discovered opportunities primarily though my GA classmates and on Meetup.com. Other students liked Eventbrite and various professional LinkedIn groups. I was most interested in firmly design-focused events, but friends found success in going to events on broader topics (“civic tech,” for example), workshops specific to start-up culture (“lean” anything), or meetings for front-end developers. I particularly like Designers + Geeks and XX+UX. I hear good things about CascadeSF. Keep an eye out for SF Design Week studio tours, too. Some large events like D+G will have time set aside for companies that are hiring to make short announcements. Get up and talk to them!
At the Meetup
When you go to a meetup, bring 2–3 friends maximum for moral support, but don’t hang out with them exclusively. Really challenge yourself to talk to strangers. That’s what everyone’s there for, but nearly everyone feels super awkward about it! Come up with a icebreaker question in advance (“So, what’s interesting to you about this meetup?”). Introduce yourself, ask it, and then practice your user research skills: just keep asking questions. “That’s interesting, would you tell me more about that?” is a good one. Suddenly you will find yourself in a conversation, and the other person will enjoy the opportunity to hold forth on themselves and their opinions to a rapt audience. This is cynical, but it will work.
Ideally, find working designers and ask lots of questions about their jobs, what they do, what they like, what they dislike, etc. If you get along, ask for a business card and see if they’ll do an informational interview with you later. Get yourself a small number of business cards ASAP (Moo is good). Your cards don’t have to reflect your final professional UX persona, they just need to indicate your ideal interests and give your name and contact information. When people have a physical reminder of talking to you and what you were interested in, they will remember you better.
If the meetup is a talk, try to ask a question. If the meetup is a workshop, participate fully. This will demonstrate that you’re an active listener with a curious mind. Just try to be engaged! You’re there because you’re interested, right?
After the meetup, sort the business cards you collected and follow up. Add people you spoke with on LinkedIn and/or email them. When you add people on LinkedIn, it’s polite to include a note saying hi and gently reminding the person where you met. Ask for or repeat your request for an informational interview if you want one. Make it as easy as possible for your target to help you.
Informational interviews are great. They usually run half an hour to an hour. I try to schedule mine over lunch or right after work at a coffee shop near the interviewee’s office. Offer to buy your interviewee coffee and ask them every question you can think of. Make sure to ask respectfully about their salary and benefits. Most people will be polite if they don’t feel comfortable disclosing that information, but many will be eager to help you set your expectations correctly and negotiate salary aggressively. We’ve all gotten screwed over at some point, and raising overall compensation helps everyone.
Informational interviews don’t turn into job offers immediately. They increase your understanding of what day-to-day work is like and which UX roles you might find appealing. Spending time talking shop with other UX professionals will help your presentation of your professional self become more sophisticated. This is a huge advantage in job interviews. Informational interviews also extend your network of helpful professional friends who’ll give you feedback on your portfolio, forward job postings, or introduce you to friends who are hiring. Potentially you are initiating a long-term friendly relationship that will become mutually beneficial over time.
Once you’ve started to amass a network, you will find that you’re connected to people who can refer you internally to the jobs you find online. You might not know someone at Dropbox, but your last informational interviewee might have an ex-coworker who now works there. LinkedIn is, of course, the easiest way to figure out if you know a guy who knows a guy. I checked this on a job-by-job basis: I’d find an interesting opportunity, apply online, then visit the company’s LinkedIn page to see if I had any potential connections there. I wish there were a way to search for jobs by title and filter for companies you’re connected to, but if there is, I can’t figure it out. Once you find a possible connection, very politely email or message your contact and ask if they’ll set up an introduction. Generally people are eager to refer you for jobs in their organization if they feel you stand a chance. They often get a cash bonus if they refer a successful candidate.
I got my current job through Meetup. I joined a UX book club and tried to help the organizer find a venue for the next meetup. It didn’t work out, but she remembered me the next time her company, TripIt, was looking for interns. She emailed me to invite me to apply. I think I was in week six or seven of the UXDi course. I finished my first draft of my “real” portfolio a day or two before I went in to interview at TripIt, so what got me in the door in the first place was the connection, resume and cover letter, and GA course blog. Informational interviews and chatting at meetups helped me learn to present myself as an emotionally mature junior designer with a passion to hone my craft; the TripIt team felt the risk of investing their time and budget into my professional development would be worthwhile.
Like me, many of my classmates took short-term contracts right out of the course. You may find these opportunities through job portals and recruiters on LinkedIn. There are also a couple agencies that specialize in contract work for designers. Creative Circle and Onward Search are two. Very few of us landed full time jobs immediately, and those who did often had prior connections at the companies that hired them. Be prepared to have some financial instability in the first six months, or more, after the bootcamp.
One Last Note
It’s not super useful to think about your classmates (or other students and junior designers at meetups) as competitors. It’s a lot better practice to forward them job postings that might be a good fit (even if you want to apply too), introduce them to useful connections at networking events, forward them inquiries from recruiters, and anything else you think might be useful. This is ultimately self-serving. Once some of you start getting jobs, you can help each other get hired. I think one local agency ended up hiring four or five designers from my course. You will also get a reputation for being kind, and others will want to help you in return.
I’m still in contact with a lot of my classmates. They’ve become an important professional network going on two years into our careers. We regularly share professional development resources, meet up at design events, drink, provide amateur career therapy, and refer each other for jobs (not usually in that order).
Your classmates’ support is especially useful because even if you take all my advice and more, you still might not get a damn job. There are a lot of forces working against you, especially if you are a woman and/or minority. Absolutely any goodwill you can build up turns into an advantage that will pay off. So get out there, paste on a positive attitude, and network!