Interview: Jared Spool on Center Centre, Real Projects, and the Future of UX Education
A couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a tweet from Jared Spool (founder of User Interface Engineering) mentioning Center Centre, a “user experience design school” located in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was intrigued.
On a near daily basis, I find myself chatting with folks about the rise of coding and UX bootcamps, the value of undergraduate and graduate degrees from “traditional” schools, and the challenge of preparing people for real world work, with real world teams. What new models will emerge? What’s up with Lambda School? How will people displaced from their current jobs, adapt and pick up new skills? This is super important stuff.
So I was curious. Why did Jared co-found a school? What gaps did he (and his co-founder Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman) see? Out of pure interest, I reached out to Jared and set up a chat. We recorded it.
Turns out Center Centre is a very interesting place. It was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign (raising $133,000). While completing thirty courses (and meeting with industry experts), the students work on real projects, for real companies. The school is a commitment: it is a two year program, and runs five days a week, eight hours a day. Tuition will run you ~$60,000. But… the school has a unique loan program, and is gearing up to create a bidding war for graduates (with plans for hiring companies to cover the loans).
This is a long interview (5,000 words-ish), but there are SO MANY good nuggets. There’s something for everyone: hiring managers, job candidates, students, trainers, folks looking to change careers, and educators. Topics include:
- Being “ready to do the work”
- The value of degrees (in the eyes of hiring managers)
- Career Shifters and UX
- Bootcamps vs. two year programs
- Center Centre’s curriculum and block/project structure
- In-house company training efforts
- The value of portfolios and describing your “design process”
- Generalists vs. specialists (and what it means to specialize)
- Why projects in traditional design programs lack constraints (hint: easier to grade)
- Working with partner companies on real world projects
I hope you enjoy the interview. I learned a ton.
Note … for an update on Cohort 1, check here:
Big Note: Between fretting about grammar/typos for weeks, and getting this interview out the world, I opted for releasing quickly. Apologies in advance.
I imagine that you did a lot of research before kicking this off. What did you learn during the research phase that you didn’t know already? What surprised you?
Oh there was a ton of stuff. I think we were overall surprised with just how disappointed people were with quality of students that were coming out of programs. There was a universal disappointment. The students are just not ready to do the work. You saw the impacts, but we didn’t really understand the depth of that.
So, that was a big piece of it. Another big piece was how little people cared about the actual degrees that people had. You know, a lot of research basically tells you what’s already obvious. But, what we were learning was that they just didn’t care about degrees. What they cared about was getting the job done.
But once you start to talk about creating the school, you immediately talk about accreditation, you talk about the type of degree… is it going be a Bachelor’s, is it gonna be a Master’s. And we’re very fixated on this structure that school’s have. You just assume it is important, and it’s there for a reason. But the people who are hiring don’t care.
So that allowed us to throw away the structure of the school and say, “okay, we’re not bound by our traditional notion of school where you go and you take several classes, classes are twice a week, three times a week, an hour, for two hours, for three hours, and you take five of them at the same time.” We realized we can do our own thing and create a school structure that meets our own needs.
When did Center Centre actually open?
The concept for the school started in 2012. We got authorization in 2015 and we had our first cohort start in 2016.
Did it require a lot of coordination with the city (Chattanooga)?
I guess it did require coordinating with the city. Yes, anytime you bring a massive business into a city, you’ve got to start thinking about those things. We did have to get authorization from the state of Tennessee, and that was an adventure. We have coordinated quite a bit with the city but that was voluntary in that the city’s been very excited about the project and probably the main reason that we chose Chattanooga was because the city was so open to it.
How do the three week blocks and multi-month projects work?
The way the three week thing works is that the first two days are an outside expert, someone who’s written material, who comes in spends time with the students. Then the students spend three days doing independent study, and then they do two weeks doing an ongoing project. The project lasts between three to five months. Yeah, so out of the six projects they’ll do, three of them will be from outside organizations, two will be things that we need done around the school, and one will be something that’s community oriented.
Interesting. Can you tell me more about the community oriented projects?
It’s usually something for a non-profit locally. One of the projects that we’ve talked about recently is that in the city of Chattanooga, there’s a non-profit coalition that’s trying to reinvigorate the local arts community; the ballet, the museums, the opera company, all these things. There’s a bunch of projects around that and we’re looking at potentially something that the students would do around this very established, very old art’s community.
Tell me more about your students. Are they moving to Chattanooga? How would you describe the prototypical Center Centre student?
In our first cohort, 80% is out of state. In the gross scale, the students we have right now are all career switchers. They’re older, they’re not coming right out of school, they’ve had a job or a career but they’re not happy with where it’s going. Some of them knew about UX design before, some of them learned about it as someone told them about the school and they checked it out. But all of them have … they may not have formal experience doing design, but they have informal experience doing design. That’s part of the entrance criteria, is that they have to have made an effort to change the world to make it better for people.
Fascinating. Can you give an example of informal design experience?
One of our students used to work at a fabric store and she sold bolts of fabric. With the rest of the staff — at the end of your shift — you have to take these bolts of fabric and put them back on the shelves after people have purchased things. At the end of your shift, your job is to take these things and put them back on the shelf.
She didn’t like the way that they were putting them back on the shelf. She thought it was inefficient. So she redesigned the carts that they use to push around to have a color coding, and she coded every bolt so that you would put the bolt in the right section of the cart. When you would move from shelf unit to shelf unit, the first one would be the first thing and the second one would be the second shelf unit. She basically redesigned it to make it more efficient.
It wasn’t hard for her to convince the other employees to use this system because it made their jobs easier, so they all started adopting it and then the person who managed or owned the store also managed or owned other stores and said, “Okay, we want you to do this at our other stores.” She didn’t think of it as design until we pointed it out.
Are the students weighing other school options? Are they shopping around?
I talk to half of them as part of the admissions process, so the ones that I finally get to talk to, in many cases, they’re actually not considering other options. This is just an opportunity that’s presented itself and they’re exploring it. They don’t have a lot of things lined up. In some cases, they’re considering other programs. We have had some that are thinking about getting their master’s degree or something, but in a lot of cases, this is just an opportunity that presented itself and they’re exploring it.
I would have thought that some were considering UX bootcamps….
There are some that are in that boat, but we actually get a lot of folks who’ve done the eight week bootcamp and love the introduction to it, and now want to learn more in-depth. They feel like the bootcamp didn’t really prepare them for a job but got them to fall in love with the subject matter.
Two years is a good deal longer than 8 weeks!
I think people really question the two year thing because it just feels like a lot of time. It is a lot of time, though it’s gone by really fast, at least the first year went by really fast. It might be too much in that the students are actually ahead of where we expected them to be at this point, but we’re seeing that as an opportunity to just squeeze more into the curriculum.
What was your goal when designing the curriculum?
There’s a lot of stuff we’re leaving out and we’re creating generalists. So far the students have taken user research, information architecture, copywriting, content strategy, visual design, interaction design, leadership, facilitated leadership, which is running meetings and using post its, presenting, story telling, critique, prototyping, front end development, two front end development courses, project management.
We only get three weeks per course, so of course we’re not dumping the entire world’s knowledge of each of these disciplines. We could make this a four year program and we wouldn’t have enough time to cover everything we’d want to cover, but the students are absorbing it at a rate faster than we expected and they’re performing fantastically. The outcome is that they’re going to be great designers when they leave the program.
Here’s what’s been happening, students just finished a project and the manager of the group they did the project for looked at the work that our students did, contacted me immediately and said, “How can I get my employees the skills that your students have?”
In several cases, the students didn’t know what UX was a year ago. I think that people are going to look at this and they’re going to say, okay, these students are coming out with more than just the normal experience that you expect from a school, which was the goal that we set out from the beginning when the hiring managers told us, “We’re not getting the students who have the experience we want.”
I think in some cases, we may have over achieved, it’s possible that we will over achieve what we should be doing but that’s going to raise the bar for every other school.
Does Center Centre threaten other schools?
I think it will be threatening in that some of those programs are based on getting funding from the companies that are looking to hire their students. If that funding starts to dry up, that’s where the threatening part will come from. The demand for designers right now is so high that I don’t know that that funding will dry up very fast. I think companies will hedge their bets and they’ll go with us, they’ll go with the other people too. The students we’re producing are very different. For a lot of the bigger universities, the Carnegie Melons, the SCADs, the Rhode Island School of Design… they produce a very different type of designer than we produce.
Companies have a place for those designer, so I don’t think those jobs are going to dry up. I think what is happening is that we’re going to fill a need that isn’t getting filled and they can live together for a while. I don’t think the schools are threatened until their companies tell them that they’re not interested in hiring students and the students start discovering that if they invest two or four years of that program, they’re not going to emerge with a new job.
Is this a replacement for in-house training? Have we gotten to the point where we can’t expect to learn on the job?
I think that’s not the business the company wants to be in. That said, the company doesn’t also want to be in the restaurant business yet they open a cafeteria. They don’t want to be in the health insurance business but they offer insurance. I think that in any professional career, you have to have a culture of continuous learning. You want every employee to grow while they’re working for you.
We’ve all met the people who have one year of experience repeated 10 times, and at year 10, they’re not interesting people to work with. The company can’t do what it needs to do if it doesn’t have that talent, so the organization needs to have a way to grow each employee. That’s all employees in all jobs. You have to have some notion of coaching, some notion of growth. Training can be done in lots of different ways.
You can train people by having your own employees be the teachers, and for some things you have to do that. Who are our customers? What do they need? You’re probably not going to find an outside program that can teach you that. What are the products that we have? What’s the history of this organization? What mistakes have we made in the past that we needed to learn from that you need to learn not to make?
Those are all things that you can’t really outsource, but how to work as a professional in a workplace, how to use the tools that we have, how to work within the processes that we’ve put into place, how to create better processes that are more efficient…a lot of that can be outsourced.
Some of this does boil down to hiring, I guess?
I have a client who went on this kick a few years ago — major fortune 500 company — and they went on this kick to say, “Look, we need to get our design act together. All we’re going to do is hire best and brightest designers, and we can afford to. We’ve got billions of dollars in the bank, no problem there. We’ll go into companies, figure out who the best designer is in that company and offer them a job at some magnitude higher than the salary they’re getting and insist that they move to our town and work with our team.” They did it. They succeeded. They got 25, 30 of the world’s best designers to come work for them.
Now they had this team that was the best and brightest, and all these people could do major design strategy work in their sleep and could come up with new design concepts in their sleep and they were really talented. What the team needed, was someone to produce wireframes and because the rest of the team had never worked with designers before, they needed those wireframes drawn out in 25 different permutations and combinations. Now you’ve these best and brightest people doing production design work and production design work, which — while important and critical — is not what you have your best and brightest do.
This is not unique to design. You don’t hire the world’s best surgeon and then have them treat venereal disease. That’s the problem, right? You need to know what you’re getting your skills for. You may have hundreds of cases of venereal disease to treat, but you don’t need the best surgeon to treat them. Venereal disease is a pretty standard thing.
Are we every going to see companies setting up schools like Center Centre?
Here’s the thing, so IBM decides design is really important for it to be competitive, so they were one of the first companies to go out and buy a design agency.
They did buy Gilbert Technology Group, which was a big agency in Austin. They acquired this agency and they said to their CEO, they said, we’re going to make you the general manager of design, Phil Gilbert, we’re going to make you the general manager of design, what do you need to do?
Here’s what we want you to do; we want design in every corner of IBM, we want every product to do this. He said okay, well, if we’re going to do this, for the size of IBM, we’re going to need to hire 1,200 designers and they’re like , “ok …done!” He’s like okay, there’s no way we’re going to get 1,200 skilled designers today, that’s just not going to happen. We’re going to need to build a school to create these designers, or to at least take folks out of school and do it.
That’s what they did. At IBM design in Austin, they built a school similar to ours except it’s only three months long and they take students right out of design school and they put them in this three month school. The purpose of this three month school is to teach them how to work in IBM, but none of it is IBM specific. It is just to teach them how to do design in a production environment, that’s basically what they’re teaching them. It started as a six month school and then it went to a three month school, they cut it down with a three month like residency program that happens after it. They’re basically doing what we’re doing but they take already finished designers and they finish them.
Center Centre sounds like a good deal more than a “finishing school”…
Yeah, we start them AND end them at the school. What we realized was that while IBM could pull that off, not every company could pull that off. Not every company can build a school inside of itself to train folks coming out of school to be able to do this, and there aren’t enough students coming out of school to fill the needs of all the open positions.
The school has an interesting loan policy. Is the idea that one day companies will cover the tuition?
Yeah, that’s definitely part of the plan. Our students don’t have to make any payments, and they don’t accrue any interest, while they’re in school. They only do that once they graduate, so three months after graduation, that’s when the first payment is due and that’s when the first interest accrues, and so we’re hoping by then they’ll have a job.
Our goal is to make our students so awesome that companies will get in a bidding war. Right now, I have more companies than I have students, interested in hiring our students. If I can keep that up, companies will get in a bidding war over our students and we want our companies to make as part of their bid that if the student comes work for them, while they work for them, they will assume the loan payments. Because the loan is a non-profit fund that means that we can get another student into the program sooner to fill a gap maybe in that company.
What has been the response amount your corporate partners (regarding the possibility of covering student loans)?
Everybody we’ve talked to says, “We think we can make this work.”
What is the ideal first job / first company for a Center Centre graduate?
Yeah, I think that what we’re looking for in a company for the students is a place where they have opportunities to learn, so we want them not to be the only designer in the place. We want them to be in a place where there’s a history that they know how to take people who are starting their career and grow them throughout their career.
We want them to be someplace where growth is part of the culture, where you can talk to somebody and they will say, I’ve been here eight years but two years ago, I was doing this thing and I learned all this stuff and four years ago I was doing this other thing and I learned all this stuff and there’s been a … and the vector of growth that I’m on is making my job more and more interesting. I feel like I’m providing more and more value to the company.
Have you had to fire any of your customers (the companies that participate in the projects) ?
Not in this process, no, but we’ve had ones where the students were a little turned off by them.
We’re teaching the students to be very professional but there’s … there are places where it’s like yeah, there was nothing … there was no joy in that interaction. Then there are other places where it’s like, these people are cool, I really like working with them, they really like doing the work and it feels very mutual. I think those are the places that I think will thrive and we want to expose the students to a variety of things so that … if we only expose them to awesome companies, they still won’t know how to select amongst themselves.
How do you screen the project partners?
There’s enough hoops that companies have to jump through that if they’re not committed to doing this, they won’t make it through the hoops. That tends to eliminate people who … in a consulting environment where you basically would say, if you’re going to put a big mug of money on the table, we’ll take it, that’ll eliminate those people. We require way more than the average project requires. We say at the outset that you need to give us a whole bunch of meeting time, you’re going to have to provide us developers, you’re going to have to give the students guidance on the work regularly and we’re not guaranteeing that the project will succeed.
Does the team actually deliver something? Do they interact with software developers?
It can be hard to gauge delivery experience from a portfolio.
Yes. This was one of the things that come from hiring managers. The hiring managers told us that when they look through student portfolios, most students have never had experience delivering something. They’ve designed something, and so as we did more research we came to realize that if you were an A student in a top design school, chances are your experience was you took 16–18 courses, most of those courses had projects associated with them.
The projects were design this thing, you designed that thing, you handed it in, because you’re an A student you got an A, maybe there were some notes in the margin about how to improve it but you got an A, so what do you have to pay attention to those for? You come out thinking everything you hand in is an A and then you go to these clients and the managers said to us, they said, we hire these best of their class students and they come in and they do something and they pass it over to development and development looks at it and says, that’s very nice, we can’t do that. The students reaction isn’t let me fix it for you, the student’s reaction is you don’t understand, I’m an A student. You never went to design school, what do you know about design?
It sounds like some mixed up expectations about the “real world”…
The hiring managers told us that they get these folks coming out of school and for some reason in every interview, the fad to do is to ask, what’s your design process? As if we care, because we’re not going to let them do that process, we’re going to make them do our process, which isn’t really a process it’s more of just…crazy. Even if we describe our process, we don’t do our process, so I don’t know why we ask them what their process is. We do and they come in thinking that their process must mean something because they got the job, and their process is based on this idealized notion of what design is, in this very clean, green filled environment, often constraint free because almost all the projects you do in most schools have no constraints.
Professors don’t put constraints in because it’s hard to grade, it’s too hard to prepare and it’s too hard to grade. They’re in this situation where there’s virtually no constraints and then they get to work where there’s all sorts of constraints and there’s no real process. They mope around saying, “Oh my God, this company is completely fucked up because they don’t have a real design process.” When in fact the company’s doing fine just shipping product it’s just process isn’t how you ship product. Our students are learning that whatever process you think is a standard process, nobody has it.
The projects are short. There’s not a lot of time for perfection is there?
They’re learning all sorts of different types of projects. They’re actually learning much smaller projects because we only have five two week sprints to get a project done so their research they do has to happen in one or two two week sprints and then they have to move on to solutions and then it’s validation. From our perspective and from their perspective, they have to get in and they have to be very focused. They have to make generalized assumptions and understand that they don’t have to be comfortable with their assumptions. But they have to be able to work within it and all of that.
The experience working with the project stakeholders (and each other) must be invaluable?
Right, so most of the work that our students do are in teams of six and they’re learning to have to work together and they’re learning to coordinate and then they have all these outsiders, which are the stakeholders at the companies they’re working with, and the developers that they have to coordinate. They have to learn what those people need and every project has presented something different. They are realizing that, now that they’re on their third project, they are realizing that these projects are … every one of them is different and that they have to learn to be adaptable.
Have you had anyone drop out of the program?
No, and this is weird. Here’s the thing, in a multi-year program, one of the first status reports we wrote to our funders was, “Oh my God, they all came back.” Because in a multi-year program, you lose 30% of your students by Christmas break. Our Christmas break ended and every single one of them came back, including the one who had … his family of four was still in Idaho while he was in Chattanooga going to school because they couldn’t quite bring the family yet. We had a hunch that he wasn’t going to make it past the break because he’d go home, see his family and decide, you know what, I can’t be away from these guys anymore, but he didn’t.
He came back and then during spring break, he went back to the family, finished some business that had to be taken care of and then loaded the family up in the car and drove them, and moved them into their new house in Chattanooga. We really expected that we would at least lose one or two and we haven’t lost any. That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges along the way but everybody’s committed to completing this program.
Do you expect your students to specialize after the program? Do you find that some students gravitate to areas of design during the program?
I think that the specialties that are going to emerge in the UX field are not interaction design, or visual design or user research or ….I think the specialties are people who are great designers who also know something about electronic health records. People who are great designers who also know something about data security. Those are the people who I think companies will pay extra for, that really want those skills, those are the important skills.
Yeah, because if you’ve got two designer candidates who basically have the same design skills but you are in the business of building out a new type of medicare system, medicaid system and health care insurance type platform, and you’ve got … of the two designers, they’re equal in every way except one’s got three years of experience working how to do user research and design in a HIPAA informed environment and you’ve got another one who’s never thought about HIPAA, which one are you going to hire?
And that’s it! Would love to hear feedback in the comments section.