Establishing Patterns: How IBM Reveals the Shape of Things to Come for New Designers

…and how I finally got my “analyst program” experience

Maia Herring
Sep 16 · 8 min read

Starting a new job is hard — and not just when it comes to the professional aspects. It’s difficult to tackle the social aspects as well. No matter how secure a person you are, as a new hire, you’ll likely feel like the new kid who doesn’t quite belong.

Before I switched careers into UX Design, I worked in Campus Recruiting for a large company. I recruited entry-level professionals and organized programming for Analyst cohorts. Analyst programs are common in business fields like banking and consulting; essentially, they’re training programs for entry-level employees. They help new hires get onboarded, network with peers, and gain exposure to leaders.

Back then, I couldn’t help but feel that I had missed my shot at participating in one of these programs. I would have loved to have an instant friend group with whom to share career milestones.

When I changed careers, I got a second chance. However, UX is an emerging field, and I knew there weren’t many professional design training programs out there. I held on loosely to this dream of entering my next role with a cohort.

Enter IBM

When I studied UX at General Assembly, my class took a field trip to the IBM Design Studio. There, I became aware of the Patterns Early Career Program — a six-week design education program for individuals beginning their IBM Design careers.

IBM’s Austin campus

I knew that IBM was a leader in tech and Enterprise Design Thinking, and I was excited about the opportunity. I had found the design equivalent of an analyst program, so I chased my dreams and submitted my portfolio.

I went through three rounds of recruitment — a portfolio review, a design challenge, and the “Finish Line” interview super day. I was overjoyed to get an offer, and I knew that it was a big step for my career. I had a lot to learn, but I trusted that going through Patterns — formerly Design Bootcamp — would drill the knowledge into me and I would emerge a more confident designer.

Speaking the Language

Various organizations have their own way of teaching Design Thinking, and IBM is no different. The company developed its own Design Language, consisting of its design philosophy, principles, and terminology.

“Hills” are IBM’s version of design problem statements. A hill should contain three components: the Who, the What, and the Wow. In other words, who are you designing for, what do they want to accomplish, and how will you wow the user and set your solution apart from others?

I’ll use this formula to recap my Patterns experience.

The Who

Let’s put the users first and talk about the people.

My interview experience resembled a campus recruiting process, so I assumed that my fellow Patternites would be recent grads starting their first job. At 28, I worried that I would be the oldest person there.

I soon realized that this insecurity was unwarranted. In a cohort of 56 designers, there was a mix of people who had just finished undergrad or grad school, those like me who had recently changed careers, and even some who had already been working at IBM for several months.

Not only were various levels of work and academic experience represented, but many of IBM’s studios from around the world sent participants. And we weren’t all UX designers. There were visual designers, researchers, and front-end developers as well.

The Patterns Summer 2019 cohort

Additionally, we worked with participants of the concurrent Offering Management Bootcamp, a similar program with a cohort of 27 new hires entering into digital product management. We worked closely with the OMs to understand the relationship between business and design.

A diverse group had congregated in the Austin studio for the summer, and our different backgrounds and perspectives were particularly valuable as we moved into the work.

The What

Prior to my start at IBM, I did a quick Google search of Patterns and didn’t find much. I assumed that I was in for six weeks of networking and participating in workshops to learn about IBM’s design methodology.

And this was true — there were plenty of presentations and group activities. However, there was a larger piece of the program that made it a much more enriching experience than I had imagined.

One of many panel discussions

The majority of our time was spent on an incubator project. In Week 2, we were placed on teams to work on real-life projects supporting IBM product teams. Five weeks was an accelerated timeline to say the least, and we hit the ground running.

From the first week, we were expected to produce output, as our sponsor team checked in with us each week for a playback, or presentation, of our work. It was a lot of pressure, considering that we weren’t very familiar with each other, and we knew very little about the product. Our only option was to learn by doing.

My team — Team Maximum

It wasn’t exactly the Wild West, although we were in Texas. Fortunately, the curriculum complemented our project timeline perfectly, as it followed the Design Thinking process. At times when my team wondered if we had fallen behind, the presentations and activities helped to move our work forward. These sessions forced us to carve out time to create crucial design artifacts, which helped us get unstuck.

It was clear that this program was created for designers by designers, and it was planned out thoughtfully with both professional and personal development in mind.

The Wow

The final project deliverable was a formal playback to our peers and our sponsor team. Getting to that point really tested me as a designer, and I learned so many lessons, not just from senior speakers but also from my peers. In turn, I discovered the “wow” factor of Patterns.

When my team began the project, we expressed our hopes and fears for the experience. One of my fears was that, as a perfectionist, I would stifle creativity among my teammates. I knew I had a habit of wanting control over team projects, but I hoped I wouldn’t regress to this behavior.

Sharing our hopes and fears with each other

Throughout Patterns, we were told that this was our time to fail in a safe environment. While I could talk the talk of the IBM motto “Everything is a prototype,” I didn’t exactly walk the walk. Like most people, I’m uncomfortable with failure, and I can become discouraged by critique.

Fortunately, others on my team welcomed critique and pivoted quickly in response to it. I didn’t have a chance to stall because my team pulled me forward with them. In the process, I learned that I shouldn’t hold myself back by resisting critique and attaching my ego to my ideas. Ultimately, I was impressed with how effectively we redirected our work to better serve our user.

I also had to surrender my need for control. This happened naturally because in those five weeks, we had more than enough work for seven people. I simply couldn’t touch every piece of the work during that time, and I feared that my work would no longer feel like a craft.

I changed my outlook after one design leader told us that trusting your team is the key to successful leadership. Once I had accepted this idea, I was able to give 100% of my creative attention to my tasks while letting others be creative with their contributions. And we didn’t let each other down.

In the end, we produced meaningful designs that effectively addressed our user’s pain points, and our sponsor team was impressed. I learned a lot about the project domain, but I think the most valuable education I received was from my teammates.

This is how Patterns stands out against other training programs. It facilitates collaboration, allowing participants to learn from their peers, not just their superiors. My teammates led by example and showed me how others at my level could feel empowered.

Presenting our final playback

Empathy for Each Other

Near the end of the program, we had a discussion about imposter syndrome — the tendency for people to doubt their own achievements and feel like a fraud. Working in an environment with high achievers can exaggerate these feelings.

Although I worked among many high-achieving IBMers during Patterns, the program actually helped to alleviate feelings of imposter syndrome. Going through this experience with my peers made me realize that we’re all in this together and none of us have all the answers. We do, however, have unique perspectives to contribute, and combining them helps us overcome our individual limitations.

From the start, our coaches, project leads, and program directors told us that we all deserved to be at IBM. Patterns gave us the chance to prove it to ourselves.

Addressing our cohort, Distinguished Designer Douglas Powell gave us his words of wisdom. He said, “Empathy, first for each other, then for the user.” Empathy from my colleagues has given me a sense of belonging and made me feel less like the new kid.


Maia Herring 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.

Maia Herring

Written by

UX Designer with late-onset wanderlust. See my work at www.maiaherring.com

Design at IBM

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