6 Lessons You Learn in the First 6 Months Designing for IBM

Practical design lessons from the world’s largest design company.

In late July 2016, I began my exciting career as a UX Designer at IBM in Austin, TX. In the six short months that followed, I participated in IBM’s three-month Design & Offering Management Bootcamp, helped facilitate recruiting events and Design Thinking workshops, started on my full-time product team, co-filed a patent disclosure, and am now heading up design for IBM’s signature email platform, Verse, on Android. It’s been a wild ride and I’ve learned a ton — here are six quick lessons I learned along the way…

1. Fail Fast. Fail Early.

The notion of failing at all can trip up even the most confident of new hires. Rarely does failing in any capacity seem like an acceptable method for success, but at IBM Design, it is part of the process. Failing fast and failing early is essential to good design. You have to know what doesn’t work in order to really appreciate what does (and why it does).

When you fail fast, you’re trying something new and exciting. You’re extending yourself beyond expectations and precedents — you’re in uncharted territory — you’re an innovator.

When you fail early, you’re front-loading the design process with big ideas and innovative concepts. You explore all the possible routes and designs early on, failing before any real resources or momentum become invaluable.

The combination of failing fast and failing early thus makes for a space that encourages great design solutions to be discovered through highly exploratory methods, innovative ideas, and an understanding for what might just be crazy enough to work.

2. Talent is good. Culture is better.

Every time a contact in my network reaches out to me about interviewing for a job or internship with IBM Design, I give the same advice:

Your talent will get you the interview. Your culture will get you the job.

Being a talented designer/researcher/developer is massively important — no question about it. But what makes IBM Design such a truly special place with boundless creativity, diversity, and eagerness to innovate is the individual culture each and every member brings along with them. IBM no longer consists purely of technical engineers, researchers, and the like. Today, IBM — particularly IBM Design — is a flourishing company of printmakers, advertisers, actors, english professors, branding/identity designers, musicians, and so much more. Notice I did not include the word “former” in that last sentence — not one of these individuals can really be considered a “former” anything — their prior work is so strongly linked to the work they do, create, and influence today it seems one in the same.

IBM has a strong talent for ensuring that the right people are matched with the right roles. This results in incredible traction, endless passion, and a vibrant workplace built on a multitude of creative types (and often those who are at the very top of their respective fields). Polish your résumé, curate a portfolio, but most importantly, share your culture.

3. Patience.

The best designs don’t happen in a single stroke — genius, luck, or ink. They take time to develop and are aided by you improving your skills, understanding what has been done before, why it has been done that way, and the methods by which it can be improved. As someone who loves to throw my passion into every great idea, patience is a lesson I am, admittedly, still learning.

The key to any great design solution is equal parts patience and exploration. You’ll have many great design ideas. The first one is not necessarily the best one and your best one is not necessarily the one that will be chosen.

By developing patience, you’ll be able to better appreciate the ideas of others, be more willing to generate additional ideas after landing on a seemingly great one, and even feel a more enriching sense of accomplishment when your great ideas serve to help others generate their own.

It is no easy feat, but patience is a skill worth perfecting — especially in a team setting where you’ll (too) often be humbled by the talent around you.

4. You don’t change unless you allow yourself to change.

It is easy to imagine that a new job, city, group of friends, etc. can easily and effortlessly change who you are as a person. For better or worse, this is not always the case.

Entering IBM’s three-month Design & Offering Management Bootcamp, I expected that I would learn the ropes of IBM Design Thinking, make some great friends, and come out feeling, well, not so different. After all, I just graduated from college and went through an IBM co-op program the prior summer, how could I really learn much more in three short months?

Well, I was right about making great friends and learning everything about IBM Design Thinking, but far off the mark with just how much I could learn…and change.

Not more than one week into the experience, I felt a great sense of friction. I realized quickly that — if I wanted to perform well and truly grow — I would need to stop thinking I knew better and start allowing myself to be changed by the intense but exhilarating program.

The rest of the Bootcamp was a blur of exciting projects, a dozen sleepless nights, and too many great memories. I left feeling more transformed after those thirteen weeks than any other three month period of my life. The program worked — but it worked because I allowed it to work. I didn’t resist the chance to grow.

Being open to change, allowing yourself to continue learning and growing in new — often scary — directions is key to success. That’s not novel advice and yet this is an invaluable lesson that has transformed me to my core. I now continuously seek novel experiences, aim to meet new people, and endlessly strive to learn everything I can in all that I do inside and beyond the studio.

Let yourself change — say “yes” — and trust the (Bootcamp) system. It works.

5. T-Shaped != Programmer;

Learning how to program is one of the best skills you can acquire — regardless of your industry or interests. But not everyone shares a passion for programming or a talent for thinking like a computer.

IBM promotes the idea of being “T-Shaped,” or, rather, being extensively talented in one (vertical) skill set while leveraging a wide (horizontal) range of interdisciplinary skills. Many great designers fear that they’ll be held back from promotions and similar opportunities if they do not round out their skills with programming knowledge. Fortunately, this is not the case.

At a company as large as IBM, it is hard to imagine a set of skills that are not valuable in some form. Great designers can be “T-shaped” by developing their people-facing skills, assisting with client interactions and leading workshops, for instance. Or, perhaps, develop a knack for writing, and thus generating content (not unlike this post) that helps others learn more about IBM Design internally and externally.

At smaller companies — particularly startups — being multitalented across a wide range of dimensions is invaluable and such a skill range will propel you to great heights. This holds true at IBM too. Go beyond the expected and required — strengthen your weaknesses alongside your passions.

Side note: While programming is not a necessity for UX and Visual Designers, it is incredibly impactful to learn at least one programming language (even if only the basics) — you’ll be surprised just how far even the most rudimentary understanding will take you!

6. Above all, ‘bee’ yourself.

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to “fit a mold.” The people you’ll end up admiring most (and hopefully have as mentors) are those who did not accept a deep-set route — they are the ones who tried new things, pushed the boundaries of their role, took on big challenges and responsibilities, and challenged the process each step of the way.

IBM Design not only promotes this mindset, they reward it. “Wild Ducks,” as IBM calls it, are those who are never willing to settle for comfortable or good enough — they are the ones who strive for more, even when that takes great effort and risk. Understanding who you are as a person, what your individual strengths and passions are, where your weaknesses lie (and how you can improve upon them), and — above all — utilizing all of this to tackle challenges with passion and excitement will help you stand out in a truly great way.

All together now…

IBM is built on the concept of “restless reinvention” — always trying something new, even when not easy, in order to gain a competitive angle and help define the next generation of technology. Whether this results in inspired designs, patents, an internal radio station, design magazine, or just the occasional Medium post, IBM is 100% behind you and your passions. With a company so supportive and excited to see you succeed, it is all too easy to forget just how huge of a corporation it actually is.

Be yourself, be patient, bring your culture, and have a willingness to learn — failing fast and early along the way. Do these simple things often and you’ll go very, very far.

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Colin Budd is a UX Designer at IBM based in Austin, TX. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.