Cover Letters are Dead
Part 1: How I stumbled into a lead design role without a portfolio, CV or much experience.
The last few years have been a clusterfuck of wonky Uni experiences, crappy internships, finding jobs, leaving jobs, starting a company and even hiring employees.
At the risk of sounding wildly self indulgent, I’ve been fortunate enough to never have to produce a traditional CV or Portfolio site, instead relying on offering feedback and (constructively) tearing stuff apart. Therefore, I’ve decided to write some waffle on the non-traditional approach to finding a design role. Truth is, it’s hard to stand out, having a shiny CV with a bar chart of software skills is pretty unlikely to get your foot in the door.
In Part 1 I’ll talk about the story of how I stumbled into my dream role at a startup, Part 2 will cover my thoughts on how to recreate that approach when applying for new roles, looking for freelance gigs, or pitching for work.
Here’s the story…
It was a most regular Monday, the 3rd of November 2014 — I was making my way to work at the Amazon Development Centre in Barbican. I was just shy of 2 years into my first ever full time design role as UX Designer for Amazon’s on demand video service. Generally, I was pretty content with my situation, after the pleasant realisation that Art Uni wasn’t simply an expensive detour from my fruit n’ veg stacking job.
However, on this Monday, there happened to be 3 young founders stood outside Barbican tube station, handing what looked like shitty A4 word documents to random passers by. These particular dudes were the founders of London Discovery App, Dojo.
Now, I almost never take random flyers off the street, but for some mystical reason, today was different. Maybe it was the cheap printer paper, lack of bells & whistles, or just the tired faces of the founders that reminded me of reluctantly shovelling flyers at students during my brief spell as a promoter at one of Brighton’s most disappointing nightclubs.
Unfurling the crumpled 80GSM paper from my pocket, It read; “Hey neighbour, my name is Robbie, I just quit my job at [insert cushy corporation here] to build this app which finds the best stuff to do in your city, we think you’ll love it”.
Hey! I’m looking for the best stuff to do in my city!
So, I got into work, connected to Amazon’s inexplicably slow, Irish routed wifi and proceeded to download the Dojo app. I mean… it was fine. It recommended 3 things to do in London that day, from quirky coffee shops to schmancy pop-ups and exhibitions. The design was also ‘fine’, there were some funky textures going on, questionable interactions and a bit of polish missing, but it had great potential.
Since moving to London, I had been a big fan of the YPlan app, which up until a few years back, had a similar proposition, finding the ‘off the beaten track’ events and happenings across London. But recently, they seemed far more focused on flogging tickets to the latest Bieber gig at the O2 arena, or discount West End shows. For me, Dojo was looking to fill that gap of local, curated things to do in the city.
Could this be the cure to my bleak London social life of ‘spoons and that noisy Ping Pong place in Farringdon?
Step 1: Rattle off some feedback
So for whatever reason, maybe it was a slow day, I decided to write them some feedback - I mean, I really wanted this product to exist, so it made sense to try and make it happen! I scribbled down several pages of my thoughts in an email, from the design of the existing product, bugs I encountered, and where I could see some opportunities for the future. I probably spent about 30 minutes max just nailing out some unedited bullet points with very little expectation of a response.
Turns out, they liked the feedback, were looking for a designer and offered me a job;
Not bad for half an hour of something vaguely resembling work. My response? (In my head of course):
“Erm, I’ve got a pretty cushy job at one of the largest tech companies in the world. Packing that in for a risky startup that operates from some cushions outside a co-working space toilet doesn't exactly fit my idea of career progression” — Career Ladder Jamie
Step 2: Take a chance
But for the second time that day, I made a decision that surprised me — I accepted their invitation to stop by the office and meet in person, and proceeded to fall in love with everything they were doing. I met with Robbie and Nick in a tiny room in Warner Yard where we spent the next 2 hours running through feedback, finding out about the vision of the company and planning how we could take the next steps with the app. They had so much passion for their product, it was like nothing I was used to.
And then just when I thought I’d avoided an interview…
“So, have you worked on any iOS apps before?” — “Erm, not really.. no.”
“Do you have a portfolio we could see?” — “Everything is NDA… and all my Uni stuff is conceptual waffle”
“Experience with startups..?” — “I love CityMapper, how good are the release notes!”
“So… can you do this?” — “Suuuure, and here’s how we’re going to do it...[bla bla user stories, testing, iteration]”
Step 3: Prove yourself
I offered to put together a more comprehensive audit of the current experience, and map out a bit of a roadmap for a redesign over the course of a few evenings per week. At this point, I still had no intention of quitting my job, but it seemed like a new challenge, away from some of a bureaucracy of my Amazon day-to-day. I presented the plans back to the founders; where I thought they should focus, where the biggest pain points are and how we could go about validating those ideas. I chucked together a few prototypes on Pixate and Marvel, proved that my grey box skills were up to scratch and set to work.
Note: I think if I had been actively seeking a role at this point, I would have likely starting whipping up a CV, cover letter and desperately putting together a generic portfolio site. Instead, I accidentally produced a game-plan of what I would do if i joined the team — probably the strongest approach I could have taken.
Over the next 3 months myself and a fresh faced, not-yet-bald Sam Piggott, designed, developed and shipped Dojo v2 from the ground up and even nabbed a feature by Apple as one of the Best New Apps.
Appy new year.
It was incredible how much we had achieved in those 3 months, more than had ever seen the light of day in almost 2 years at Amazon, and I had proven to the founders (and myself) that I had it in me to add value to the company.
It finally came down to an ultimatum; Robbie needed to keep this pace up, which meant a full time product lead, someone to grow the team and make that vision happen. If it wasn’t going to be me, they were going to have to look elsewhere.
I bought myself 4 weeks to make a decision. Taking the job would mean a pretty hefty pay cut, no security, losing some mystical Amazon shares, but most importantly not shipping the project I had been working on for the last 2 years. I had landed most designer’s dream job straight out of Uni, and it felt like throwing that away would be a pretty outrageous thing to do.
I spent hours chatting to friends and family, secret lunches consulting with Dojo iOS dev and my now co-founder Sam Piggott about what I should do. Robbie even roped all of Dojo’s investors into sending me an email about why joining would be the right decision. I spent an hour chatting to one of Dojo’s early VCs, alexdunsdon as he was putting his kids to bed, about what an opportunity this could be.
But still… I just couldn’t do it. On the one hand, exciting new startup life and a whole heap of responsibility, but on the other it felt like I was about to throw away 2 years of hard work. I made the call to see my current project out, which was due to ship in 3 months, and take my chances if the job was still going later in the year. I made my way to Warner Yard for what I assumed would be the final time, ready to say “thanks, but no thanks”.
I signed myself into the building, sat down in the lobby and checked my phone… a message from my boss saying they had postponed the project (again) for another 6 months.
Fuck it, I’ll take the job at Dojo.
Since then, Dojo went on to become one of the most exciting startups in the London scene, we were awarded Best of 2015 on the App store and Play Store, provided jobs for some of the most talented writers, designers and developers I’ve ever met, and even allowed Sam and I to gain enough experience and confidence to start our own company.
Why should I care?
Looking back at the knotted string of events that have led to this very moment, I’ve realised that if I were ever to apply for a job again or start hiring for the studio, I would look for this very approach.
Pie chart-ridden CV’s and spray n’ pray cover letters are dead.
In Part 2, I’ll break down exactly the approach I’d take, or would like to see from others when looking for a new role.
Thanks for reading this far! I don’t write much (which probably shows) but I’d like to start contributing some more pieces around the ‘alt’ side of the design and startup world… So expect pessimism, pretension and self deprecation all around — because no one needs another “10 Ways to be a successful bla”. I’d love to hear your feedback!
If you’d like to know more about what we’re up to, check out our little Startup Studio, Combo.