In this article series I talk to people at some of the most admirable companies and studios out there, simply asking, how do I get a job there?
First up is one most of us know well: Airbnb.
Airbnb has changed the way people travel, allowing us to stay in someone’s home and live life like a local. Their appreciation of design and unique brand vibe draws the best of creatives from all over. Katie Dill is Director of Experience Design at Airbnb and happens to be a friend of mine (lucky me). Katie kindly answered all my nosy questions about getting a job at Airbnb, and I think you’ll find her advice to be helpful for getting a job anywhere.
Hey Katie, let’s get right into it. Let’s assume my dream job is joining the Airbnb design team, but I’m not sure where to start. I’m curious how those who work at Airbnb right now got their position, and if there are any secrets to applying for a job at Airbnb.
Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals and how many came through the traditional application process?
[Katie] Referrals are useful, but we try not to rely on this because it’s a sure way of only getting more of the same type/backgrounds. Instead, the majority of our people come from those that reached out directly or we proactively sourced, which is when our recruiters search high and low for interesting people from a wide variety of places.
How important is a visual and complete portfolio for you? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Airbnb?
[Katie] Super important! It gives us a quick and pretty clear signal about someone’s abilities and experiences. We require a portfolio review before we invite someone on site for a day of interviews. It helps us better understand their potential fit — making sure there is a role that would work well for them — before wasting their time (or ours) in a full day of interviews.
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being very invested in other things? For example being active bloggers, or otherwise outspoken in their respective community?
[Katie] Absolutely! We look for folks with an entrepreneurial spirit, a passion for craft and a bias for making. We see this in their hobbies as well as their day jobs. It’s not required that someone has a side gig, but it absolutely interests us and generally points to strong characteristics.
“We look for folks with an entrepreneurial spirit, a passion for craft and a bias for making.”
Would you say the majority of designers you hire have been pre-selected and head hunted by your team, or do you get a lot of cold applications as well?
[Katie] We are fortunate to have lots of folks reaching out about joining our team. It’s great when people reach out directly and express their interest. It shows hustle and passion, and that goes a long way.
In addition, we do a ton of proactive sourcing to find folks who might have particular skills. Those we find ourselves we learn about through external and internal referrals, job sites like LinkedIn and media like Medium or FastCo. We rarely identify new potential candidates on sites like Dribbble, but these sites are good for understanding people’s skills and potential fit once we know about them.
Knowing that we’d be one of many people reaching out directly, how should we go about it? What kind of message gets a reply?
[Katie] The ones that really stick out are the ones from folks that have put a little effort into it and show a POV. For example, I am always impressed by those that took it upon themselves to redesign an aspect of Airbnb to show us their skills, ideas and interests. We’ve seen a lot of great work this way and we’re always happy to talk to someone with that kind of passion and hustle.
What are the top mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Airbnb? Are there specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:
[Katie] Folks love to talk about how they do “design strategy” and want to work on “new big things.” They’ll tell us that they can do the details, but they’re better with strategy and developing new concepts and their time is better spent elsewhere. What they’re forgetting is that almost everyone wants to work on new and exciting things, that’s a given. We are most interested in finding people who have an understanding of how big and little improvements drive a business forward, and know how to balance these things to create big impact. We want the folks who can come up with big ideas AND know how to get them done. We want people who are passionate about solving problems, and not just the sexy ones.
Any favorite story of an application that really stuck with you?
[Katie] Two years ago, Jihad Kawas (a high schooler from Lebanon) sent us a project he called Airbnb Moments. He put together a whole site showing his thinking and ideas for a product. It was awesome. It was rapidly sent around the product team. Folks were impressed with the thoroughness, care and creativity. We brought him into the office, had him present to the team and meet the CEO. He was pumped and so were we. At the time we didn’t have a role for him but we’ve been keeping in touch ever since :-)
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
[Katie] I have seen way too many design process diagrams. They’re all the same. I want to understand your process, so I can be sure you’re thinking about users and giving yourself room to develop creative ideas. But four bubbles, a few arrows and a bunch of words is just fluff. I’d prefer to see that process through the work. Show me how you’ve gone from insight, to concept, to solution, to impact with a real project example. That will help me understand how you work and think, and assure us you can do it again.
“Show me how you’ve gone from insight, to concept, to solution, to impact with a real project example.”
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you briefly describe the interview process from there? How many interviews are there and how long would the average interview process last? What are the phases?
While we’re often evolving it, this is what it is today…
- You chat with the recruiter on the phone
- You submit your online portfolio, we review it
- You chat with a designer from the team on the phone
- Recruiter tells you about the Design Challenge
- You submit the Design Challenge, we review it
- You come in for a day…
- Portfolio + Design Challenge presentation (45 mins)
- Three interviews with designers (3x 30 mins)
- One interview with a project manager (1x 30 mins)
- Two interviews with cross functional / core value folks (2x 30 mins)
- Lunch with a designer
Would you hire someone who is a culture fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
[Katie] You need both to work at Airbnb. Great craft is essential, but it means nothing to us if you can’t collaborate and put our users first. We look for people who are self-aware and value the contributions of others. Whether they’re a leader or follower, an introvert or an extrovert, we seek people who know that problem-solving is a team sport, and that our community has diverse needs.
What are the secondary skills you look for in a designer? For example, do you prefer business skills over coding skills?
[Katie] It’s important that all designers can communicate their ideas and rationale, collaborate with others, and navigate ambiguity proactively. Beyond that, it really depends on the role. We hire prototypers that can code, yet lack facilitation and presentation skills. And we also hire folks that are awesome at facilitation and presentations, but can’t code for the life of them.
Leaders are expected to work laterally with other teams and cross-disciplinary partners. Business acumen as well as technical understanding is very useful for these folks as it can make them a better collaborator.
How do I get your job one day? (;
[Katie] Hard work :-)
Thanks to Katie for taking the time to provide these thoughtful answers. Of course every company looks for something different in a hire, and I found several of Katie’s points worth noting if you’re interested in applying at Airbnb. Here are my main takeaways:
Airbnb isn’t specifically hiring off of Dribbble.
They don’t rely only on referrals and actually source talent from places like LinkedIn or Medium. That means the more present you are online, the more likely they will find you before you can even apply.
Do something that surprises.
Katie remembered the kid who submitted the Airbnb Moments design. She passed his name around and even linked to his work here. Airbnb gets hundreds of applications a week. Now the question is, which one surprises and stands out?
A portfolio seems to be crucial.
Portfolios are one of the first things Airbnb checks to decide who moves on to the next step. You better have one.
Set aside some time for the interview process.
It seems like Airbnb’s interview process is fairly involved and requires you to be there in-person for at least parts of it. Plan accordingly if you’re traveling for interviews.
Bullshit will not get you far.
Airbnb wants to see your process in action, not a pretty infographic about it. Provide examples that show how you think from the strategy phase all the way through the details and dirty work. Go all out.
If you’re now as pumped as I am, you can apply to Airbnb right here. (if your position isn’t listed, try reaching out to a design recruiter on LinkedIn instead)
What did you find most helpful from Katie’s interview? Or do you have any questions that you feel didn’t get answered? Tweet at me and let me know — I’m happy to help!
Have a fantastic week,
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