A life by design

Moving from Melbourne to San Francisco

“Designers heaven”… I remember the moment a close friend had sold me on the idea of moving to San Francisco. James had recently landed a coveted Product Design role at Pinterest, and although I was getting ready to settle down and live the life of a Melbourne-coffee-snob, the notion that I might be able to find a home amongst the tech-elite in SF was compelling AF.

At the time, I was living a pretty good life in a city I loved, a city with the some of the highest standards of living in the world, an amazing food scene, and undoubtable the best coffee on the planet. I had a steady full time role as Design Director for a mid-size consulting company (we specialized in Agile software design), and I assumed that my path was somewhat on track — all I had to do was stay the course.

But maybe its the designer-in-me, always questioning (and almost never content), or maybe the curious voice in my head was just too loud. Either way, I decided to throw a little caution to the wind and book a two week fact-finding-mission to San Francisco. What did I have to lose?

Leading up to the trip, I knew I needed to get a few things organized. I had to research companies and start-ups, create a network of contacts, put together a portfolio, and rehearse my pitch. I also had to spend a reasonable amount of time understanding the various VISA and immigration pathways that were available for me at the time. H1-b, E3, A0. The Australian E3 is the easiest route if you meet all the basic requirements (University degree, 6 years or more experience in you given field etc).

Preparation

I decided to book my flights three months in advance to give myself time to prepare. I set myself a goal and told myself to do at least one thing every night that would move me closer to San Francisco — Even if it was just one line of code for my portfolio, finalizing copy for a project case-study, or understanding who looked after internal design recruiting at company X. As long I was doing something, that’s all that mattered.

Feeling apprehensive but somewhat optimistic I landed in SF mid October 2014 with a portfolio of work that I was proud of, a shopping list of companies and contacts, and a Linkedin Premium account set up and ready to go.

I arrived on a Friday night with plans to attend the Treasure island festival the next day. Needless to say it was a great introduction to SF, and I recall watching the sun set behind a silhouetted city while listening to my favorite Aussie artist Chet Faker serenade the crowd into the evening with his rendition of No Diggity. It was a perfect start to my two week vision-quest (I mean career move).

Interviews

Nothing really prepared me for the interviews I experienced over the following two weeks. Sure, I had read a number of Medium articles that explained the process — 1 hour long presentations, one-on-one’s etc, but I didn’t really expect the volume, speed, analysis, and criticism that ensued.

Professionally, I felt like I was hitting all the high-notes. I was excited that companies like Google X, Airbnb, Facebook, Pinterest, & Frog Design where all opening their doors and finding time to chat. VP’s and even Co-founders were attending my presentations — Joe Gebbia himself even turned up to my interview at Airbnb dressed as Jiro the Sushi chef (it just happened to be Halloween that day).

Personally though, it was a roller-coaster of emotions. I don’t think I had ever experienced such unfiltered, direct, and hurtful criticism. I’m a big fan of Kim Scott’s book on Radical Candor, and I’m also very familiar with justifying your process and decisions as a designer (it’s part of your job after all). But, time and time again I was scrapping myself off the side-walk after interviews, feeling like I had just been dissected on a table in front of my own eyes — poked and prodded in an effort to find some elusive design-formula, and then discarded until further notice :(

It was brutal.

Self-efficacy

I often feel like the interview process for designers in silicon valley is a little over the top. I know that hiring a designer is difficult, and the right decision can often lead to the success of a product, while the opposite is also true. However, the process is so strenuous for candidates that I wonder how any designer can actually land a job (or even want a job at the end of it all). You’re made to jump through hoops, perform design tests, present to panels, and run a gauntlet of one-on-one interviews (not to mention the dissection part above), all with a seemingly arbitrary decision at the end. In some cases, even if you have 10+ years experience, you’re qualifications don’t really amount to anything prior to that moment in time.

That’s when I decided to look beyond the tedious nature of design interviews. I know I wasn’t ready for the barrage of criticism and analysis, but I was ready to learn and reflect my own ability, values, experience, and judgement back into the process. I have a unique perspective on design (both theoretical and practical), a proven track record of successes and failures, and that’s what’s important. That’s what counts.

On my last day in San Francisco I had my final interview with Airbnb, a full day onsite. I remember feeling like I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I was excited, nervous, confident, and giddy as hell. I spent the night before going over all my notes from the previous two weeks of interviews, rehearsing, learning, making sense of it all. It was Halloween (Joe was dressed as Jiro, remember). The day kicked off with brief introductions and a presentation that went really well. I spoke in detail about my design philosophy, I went deep on one specific project, and spoke at length about design process, my experience in cross-functional team, and the importance of collaboration in context of design. Being halloween, everyone was in a really playful mood that day and I think that made a huge difference in making me feel comfortable and welcome.

I left Airbnb HQ at 4pm sharp, and headed straight to the airport to board a 16 hour direct flight back to Melbourne. At that point the whole trip had felt like a dream, I couldn’t believe the people I had met and the places I had been — I was so exhausted that I slept for almost two days straight when I got home.

A one-way ticket

I can’t say that there are many times in my life I’ve bought a one-way ticket somewhere. I think this was my second (the first being from Sydney to Melbourne, but that doesn’t count, right?).

I received a call from Airbnb a couple of weeks after returning to Australia. It was good news, I had landed a role as Principal Product Designer at their SOMA HQ in San Francisco. I was over the moon!

Everything I had set my sights on over the previous few months had paid off and I was ready to propel my life into a new direction. I sold everything I had, resigned from my job, and landed a 2 year E3 working VISA. My entire life was packed into two suitcases. Literally.


Life in two suitcases

Fast forward a few years and I now live and work in Oakland California, I’ve had the opportunity to rub shoulders with folks I consider the most influential designers in history, and work alongside some of the most inspirational people (from researchers, engineers, and poets, to leaders, revolutionaries, and anarchists). I’ve been blessed to work on some of the most compelling, complicated, and impactful products of our generation. While at the same time continuing to push myself to do things I never thought capable of doing, continuing to learn from my successes and failures (there have been many), and never really seeing this as an end-goal — even after 15 years in the industry, but rather, a new beginning, by design.


Hi, I’m Shane! Currently, I work on the product design team at VSCO in Oakland California, designing a community of expression for millions of photographers around the world.
Previously, I worked at Airbnb where I solved problems related to trust, empathy, and perception for a global community of travelers and hosts.
Follow me on Twitter
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