Photo by Kevin Noble on Unsplash

Some sage advice for aspiring UX designers, from a bootcamp survivor

Samuel Harper
Published in
32 min readAug 21, 2020

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User Experience design is a field that has been emerging more and more as the “hot new career” to get into. Jobs are popping up all over the place, and tech is evolving at lightning-fast speeds, which not only prompts the demand for UX designers but also for bootcamps and other formal and informal educational institutions to be able to meet the growing need.

Many new UX designers are coming from a bootcamp, although some also come from self-study, as well as the traditional routes like colleges and universities.

Regardless of what educational experience you are seeking to help you break into the field, I have some key, important points that everyone needs to come to terms with. And because there are not enough blogs or articles that cover these honest and critically important bits of information, I will.

So strap in; you are in for quite a ride.

Photo by Chris Martin on Unsplash

Forget about the money. That should NEVER be anyone’s primary motivation for entering ANY career.

I put this as the very first subject because I feel like way too many people get into tech for money as their primary motivator, so I need to make sure EVERYONE reads this part first.

While there is nothing wrong with wanting money (we want to be able to pay our bills and be comfortable, after all), the problem is that those individuals who primarily pursued money quickly become disappointed once they actually entered UX design (or any other similar tech field). They realize they are not making nearly as much money as they hoped for, and that “money-grab” of a job now becomes a miserable chore, because it was not carefully selected based on if the person actually wants to sit in a chair for 8 hours per day and a MINIMUM of 40 hours per week, to do THIS particular job.

That is how we end up with hoards and hoards of developers who were lured by high salaries, only to realize how much they genuinely hate their jobs. And UX is no different.

Photo of Alan Watts
Photo of Alan Watts, courtesy of Mindvalley blog

My favorite modern(ish) day philosopher of all time is Alan Watts. While a lot of his recordings are over half a century old, he still has some very relevant messages, which many people entering the tech field can and should take to heart. And there is one recording in particular, where he speaks about why picking a career based on money is one of the dumbest things anyone can do.

“If you say that getting money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You will be doing things you don’t like doing, in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid! Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way.” -Alan Watts

Here is what people think their life will be like if they jump into a hot new, trendy career that promises a ton of money (as many fields in tech are advertised, unfortunately).

Guy smoking a cigar on a $100 bill
Photo credit: Steemit.com

If you have never experienced something first-hand, you have no idea what it is like. And that is where you may start imagining how things might be. And our vision is often FAR more inflated from reality. We imagine the thing we would run to be far sexier, more exotic, more fun, and pushing the limits of our wildest imaginations.

But how it is, in reality, and the imagery of what we think it looks like in our heads is often vastly different.

In fact, for people who turn to money as their primary motivator, this is what their lives turn out like the vast majority of the time, years, and even decades later:

This is NOT where you want to find yourself, 10+ years into your career. Make the decision to enter this field or any other field VERY carefully. GIF found on GIPHY

I have met UX directors, creative directors, and very successful people running companies who have the perfect Instagram-looking life. They are married to a beautiful spouse, have kids, tons of money, an awesome house, a new car, and from the outside, their careers look awesome.

But their career, title, money, and status do not fix their problems. In fact, it often reveals the small ways they crack under pressure, their flaws, and their insecurities. Under the wrong circumstances, their careers actually exacerbate their current problems.

People who pursue money just for the sake of money either become slaves to shiny object syndrome, or they become empty, hollowed-out versions of their former selves. They will get into that hot new career that is trending, spend a few (or many, many) years in it, and they will either become dissappointed that they are not making as money as they hoped, and leave the field for something else, only to enter a new field at a much older, and less experienced age, and possibly repeat the cycle all over again.

Or they will endure their pain, and stay for however long they stay for, until they finally break and can’t take it anymore. If they break before retirement, they will have to start all over as a junior level employee in some other career. If they don’t, they will become empty, miserable husks, having wasted an entirely good life doing something they endured for over 50 years of their life, just to finally live their lives the way they should have been living it all along. Except by this point, they are old, grey, and more bitter than black coffee itself.

Regardless of the outcome, NO ONE should live their life that way.

What I often see as a recurring trend (not just in UX design, but in general); the people who chase money are often the ones that become the most unhappy, anxious wrecks. Some are even suicidal. Even just having been in this field for a few years, I have seen over and over again that being at the top of the UX, or UX turned entrepreneur food chain does not necessarily equate to more happiness. And sometimes, it’s the opposite.

That is why I encourage people to only consider this field IF they truly love the process behind UX design.

Ask yourself if you would do UX design for the rest of your life, and for free (assuming your needs were met and your bills were taken care of). If the answer is yes; to hell with the money, cool offices, and the wild conferences, than you are on the right track. Otherwise, you have some serious self-evaluation you need to do.

Yes, you want to be able to pay your bills and be comfortable. But pursuing a career for the sake of money is a losing game. it’s the reason why there are so many dreadfully miserable developers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, dentists, and so on. Some people devote years, if not decades towards getting into a particular career, just to realize how horrendously miserable it makes them. That is where we get people in their quarter and mid-life crisis.

And it should be deeply worrying that those unfortunate life events happen so frequently to the point of almost being expected, as it shows how people prioritize their careers. We are conditioned to pursue money, just to wake up much later in our fifties and sixties, anxious and miserable, and think “Oh my god, what was I thinking in my twenties? This wasn’t the life I wanted!”.

And there is nothing wrong with admitting your heart is not nearly as into user experience as you thought it would be. In fact, self-awareness is a truly wonderful thing to have. But if you commit, make sure you are getting into this field for the RIGHT reasons.

Becoming a professional user experience designer (or entering any other tech field) will not necessarily solve your problems in life.

Photo by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

As we stated previously; your job status, how great your life appears to everyone else, and having finally achieved that “user experience designer” title that you can proudly display on your LinkedIn and resume, does not fix you as a person, or any of your shortcomings.

Sure, you may eventually make more money. The work you do might be more creative in nature (or not), depending on what your previous career was, by comparison. And you might like the hip offices tech companies often have, with ping pong tables, video game rooms, beer on tap, and so on.

But none of that external stuff makes anyone happy if you aren’t willing to work on yourself, before, and during your time in this field.

This is not a new trend. As I stated previously, there are tons of people in both tech fields, as well as other careers that they pursued for the wrong reasons. And they often realize much later on how miserable they actually are, despite having plenty of wealth, a sexy title, and everything else they dreamed would make them happy.

Hell, it is the very reason why so many people get into a relationship and even get married, only to get divorced later. That person is unhappy, and rather than working on themselves, they seek someone else to fill that huge, black void in their soul. Sometimes, they will get married to someone else, just to have to eventually come to the realization that the person they married cannot fulfill that void, which can lead to alcoholism, depression, infidelity, and constant fighting. And now they are forced to sort through a messy, prolonged divorce, which could have been prevented with some prior self-awareness and careful choices.

Believe it or not, that happens in our careers all of the time. So whether you still decide to pick user experience or something else, make sure you pick carefully.

UX work is not always “fun” or “creative”.

Oh lord, even just a few years of experience in this field has shown me that user experience design work, while sometimes fun and creative in nature, is just that; it’s WORK.

It’s the same with other “creative” fields too. For example, this humorous LinkedIn article, How to Tell the Difference Between an Advertising Creative and a Sad Raccoon sheds some quite humorous, yet truthful light on the life of people in creative roles.

Some people seem to think that being in a “creative” career will put them in a state of pure, constant ecstasy where they feel like they are getting paid gobs of money to go to an office eight hours per day that feels like the adult equivalent of Chuck-E-Cheese, complete with ping-pong tables, bean bag chairs, beer on tap, and video games. Where you get to do highly creative work that involves a combination of cool problem solving and highly creative, graphic design like work all day, then go home and do it all over again tomorrow.

And who wouldn’t want that? Except working in this field is not quite like that…

Child playing with a toy camera
Want to know what a day in the life of a UX designer looks like? This isn’t it. Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash

Despite how it is portrayed, UX design is not about playing around in a virtual sandbox. Like any job, you are not getting paid to “have fun”. Your job is centered around fufilling business needs, measuring Key Performance Indicator (KPI) values, identifying product opportunities, coming up with designs to meet those outcomes, and rinsing and repeating to ensure you are delivering the right outcome for the right digital product(s).

There have been plenty of projects I have worked on, that were so miserably boring that watching paint peel would be more fun. For example, imagine going through a very dry, outdated legal or healthcare website, identifying if it meets Americans with Disabilities (ADA) compliance, documenting links and paths in Excel, identifying if their current setup makes sense, making suggestions for UX tweaks, putting it together in a pitch deck, and sending it off.

Do that for a few days, and your brain will turn to oatmeal. Do it for a couple of weeks, and you won’t be able to tell the difference between yourself and the zombies on The Walking Dead.

Similarly, throw in the stress of tight deadlines, unruly clients yelling at you, and not being able to finish projects to the level of detail you want to, and you have a less glamorous, yet not so talked about aspect of what it can feel like to be a user experience designer.

I have had moments in my UX career where I wanted to pull out my hair. Where I wanted to break down crying. Where I wanted to punch a wall, out of sheer frustration. Where I was expected to meet impossible deadlines, and put in 70+ hour weeks to make sure a project met it’s deadline, all while barely getting any sleep. Where I worked so tirelessly hard on a design, just for the client to say they hate it, and rip it to peices.

And where despite all of that, at times it felt as if none of my hard work was appreciated, or even aknowledged.

It’s not all fun and games, and anyone who tells you otherwise either has no idea what they are talking about or is trying to deceive you with marketing.

That is not to say that this is not a fun, or creative job to be in. It is an engaging field to be a part of, and I still have no regrets about becoming a user experience designer. But make sure you tame your expectations. No matter how awesome people make this field sound, at the end of the day, you are still doing a job, like everyone else in society.

The way you learn about how a “UX process” works in a bootcamp is almost never how it goes in real life.

Diagram of the creative process, showing it is incredibly messy and tangled
This often feels like how it goes in real life. Image credit: Innovations For Purpose

In your bootcamp, your project is guided, from the beginning stage to the end, in a perfect-world scenario. There are no surprise fires. No clients changing their minds at the last minute. No technical limitations. No business requirements that supersede a good user experience. You get to create the theoretical project as if you were handed a bunch of multi-colored play dough, and asked to make something.

Trust me, I went through a bootcamp, and I have seen student projects from other bootcamps, too.

The truth is, user experience projects in real life are often far more sporadic and politically driven than they are portrayed to be. Business requirements change. Funding dries up. Clients change their minds and decide to go in different directions. Egos within the company leadership get involved. Features that were otherwise fantastic ideas get scrapped. Shiny object syndrome happens. New information about client needs gets obtained and forces companies to go in different directions.

When you are studying at a bootcamp, you are the sole actor creating your (usually theoretical) project. You are the designer, the reseracher, the UI person, the creative director, the product manager, and oftentimes the primary “user”.

In real life however, you are one of hundreds, if not thousands of cogs in an extremely complicated machine that is powered based on the wind direction, the lunar cycles, and the elements of the earth. There are so many variables involved, and the difference between theoretical and real-world work is so vastly different, it is virtually incomparible.

This is what UX design looks like before you get your first job.

Picture of the gentle swings at an amusement park
Photo by ckturistando on Unsplash

And at times, this is what UX design has felt like for me, at various jobs in my career so far:

Intense photo from the Mad Max; Fury Road movie
Clip from Mad Max: Fury Road, owned by Warner Bros. Photo credit: backstage.com

Remember that NO ONE owes you a job. Period.

This goes without saying; just because you signed up for a bootcamp or some other educational resource that teaches you how to get a job as a user experience designer, does NOT mean that anyone owes you a job in this field.

You don’t enroll in a university and demand all of your instructors for an A, just because you paid to enroll in the college. That would be ridiculous. And for that same reason, no one owes you a job upon graduation.

Patience, young grasshopper

Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid
Clip from The Karate Kid was found on Vice

“I plan to enroll in my bootcamp by September, get hired by November, graduate by December, make six figures by July of next year, become the director of the design department by December of next year, and become CEO of the company the following year”.

Okay, so that is somewhat of an exaggeration. But the truth is, you can’t make plans based on when you will get hired, or how things will unfold for you. Life is a lot messier, slow-moving, and far more unpredictable than we like to think it is.

And this is coming from someone who has been known in the past to be an OBSESSIVE planner.

One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give to new UX designers is to be patient. Making a career change (or getting into UX out of college, for that matter), does not come quickly. It is not uncommon for new bootcamp grads to go months without getting hired. And even then, they are in junior roles, often working under senior designers, who may be younger and more experienced than the new UX designer themselves.

I mentioned some sage advice from my favorite philosopher (and arguably, a life coach?), Alan Watts. In addition to his talk about not pursuing money, he also gave a very compelling speech about how our society is set up to have us focus on the end goal, which causes us to miss the point of the journey. Alan’s recording, which was placed in video format and animated by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, does a fantastic job of highlighting our desire to pursue rewards, and in turn how we overlook the process of life, therefore completely missing the point of living.

Alan Watts portrait
Remember Alan Watts? He has more UX career advice for you! Photo credit: highexistence.com

“In life, one does not make the end of the composition, the point of the composition. If that were so, the best composers would be those who played faster. And there would be composers who only wrote finales. People would go to concerts, just to hear one crashing chord. And that’s the end!” -Alan Watts

I can say from my personal experience, that the hardships I went through, both before entering this field, during my bootcamp, and experiences as a brand-new UX designer were what sculpted me into the person I am now. I have gone through so many mentally demanding, emotionally turbulent, exciting, maddening, monotonous, and miserable moments to get to this point.

And looking back on all of it, I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Trust me when I say this; the challenges you are experiencing now while feeling awful, shitty, frustrated, and dreadfully challenging, will too, become your eventual bragging rights after you have conquered the mountain of making a career transition and securing your first position.

Don’t focus on the rejections. Focus on your wins.

Another huge bit of advice I can give people entering this field is to forget about how many people rejected you.

While this may be difficult, especially with the constant barrage of auto-responses that say something along the lines of “Thanks for applying, but we went another direction”, it is important to realize that it has no reflection of you as an individual.

LinkedIn post; your hiring manager did not reject your character, your values, your passion, your motivation, your work ethic
Screenshot from Brendan Rogers, who is filled with incredible career insights. Link to the original post can be found here.

One of the most valuable things I learned from both of my former sales jobs is that even the best salesman in the world are told “no” the vast majority of the time.

When I was on the job hunt right out of my bootcamp, I applied to work at over 500 different companies. Of those, I got about 10 recruiter (and first-round hiring manager) interviews, two final-round interviews, and one job offer. The rest of the companies I applied to either ghosted me, or sent me auto-rejection emails.

The job hunt is a mental game. Auto rejection emails do not say anything about you as a person, and they do not cause you any physical harm. They are just that; emails that tell you the company went in another direction.

In my article, “10 Sobering Realities Every Brand-New UX Designer Needs To Accept”, I highlight that this is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult points of your career; getting someone to take a chance on you when no one else in the UX space has.

In addition to not focusing on the rejection emails (or looking at them in a positive light, as we will highlight later in the next point in the article), I encourage people to focus entirely on their wins.

If you have children (or if you were a baby at one point in your life; I know I was!), think about how parents encourage their kids to go from crawling to walking. They do not criticize the baby for falling every time they stand up. Instead, they celebrate every small win.

Picture of a baby
No one ever says “No, you stupid baby! Why do you keep falling every time you try to walk?” Photo by yuri tasso on Unsplash

First, the baby learns how to crawl. As they get older and their motor skills further develop, they attempt to do more advanced things, including standing on two feet. They will fall over a lot of course; after all, this is such a new skill. And the child’s parents are cheering for them, every time they try to stand.

Eventually, they are able to stand, and maintain balance for long periods of time. And the child’s parents are ecstatic! They can finally stand!

Next comes the even more advanced motor skills; walking. Now instead of standing, the baby has to be able to balance, while also putting one foot in front of the other. The baby falls, over and over again. And the parents are patient, forgiving mistakes while also celebrating the small wins.

Before you know it, the baby knows how to walk. And the parents are THRILLED, cheering their child on the whole way through their haptic spurts of two-legged wobbling across the living room floor!

While you can get support from friends, romantic partners, and family, you ultimately have to be both the parent, and the child in this scenario. You need to be your biggest cheerleader.

At first, you will apply to countless jobs, and all you will receive is auto rejection emails. That is akin to trying to stand for the first time and falling. It will happen a lot, and it’s perfectly normal.

Eventually, you will get an initial screening call from a recruiter. And holy cow, you just got your first response! How exciting!

If they turn you down (or if they send your information to the hiring manager, who turns you down), fine. But you know at this point, that you can at least get someone to respond.

Next, you get another recruiter call. And guess what? They liked you enough to send your application information over to the hiring manager, who wants to schedule an interview with you! At this point, you have done the UX job hunt equivalent of standing. And CONGRATULATIONS!!!

Now you are standing, but you are still not finished. You still must pass through a few more interviews, which may also involve a group interview, and either a design challenge and/or presenting some work you have done in the past. If you get rejected, no big deal. You got to this point once, so you know you can get there again.

And eventually, you get to the finale; THE FINAL ROUND INTERVIEW!!!! CONGRATULATIONS!!! Think of this point as taking a few wobbly steps. It wasn’t easy, but all of that practice paid off. You are finally learning how to walk! And even if you fall over, it does not matter. Because you just have to keep relying on yourself, getting up, and doing what you have always been doing.

Finally, and I mean FINALLY… the recruiter calls you back and gives you AN OFFER!!! WOW, YOU DID IT! You have successfully walked across the room, without even falling over once!!!

Obviously, as I stated previously, the hardships do not stop there. But every step you took, every time you got a little bit further and raised the bar a little bit higher, you conditioned yourself that you CAN do this. You continue to further cement that this is possible, and that allows you to keep pushing yourself towards accomplishing more, and more, and MORE!

So document your wins. Write them down on a piece of paper, and post it in a clearly visible part of your wall. This will remind you that assuming you have the drive (and I haven’t scared you off from the profession, despite everything we covered), you are entirely capable of becoming a UX designer.

Don’t focus on the tools. Focus on the process.

Rack full of tools
Most new UX designers make the mistake of hoarding tools. Photo by Barn Images on Unsplash

Another very common issue I see new UX designers run into is what tools they should learn. Should you learn Sketch? Adobe XD? Figma? Axure? Omnigraffle? Optimal Sort? Jira? UX Pin? Invision? Photoshop? Illustrator?

The truth is, by focusing on the tools, you overlook the process itself, which is far more valuable.

Imagine if you were tasked with constructing a house. You have lots of tools at your disposal; a miter saw, hammers, tape measure, a chisel, a steel square, a drill with dozens of drill bits, a sander, etc. You have more than enough tools to complete the job.

So does that mean you can build a really awesome, beautiful house? Well, not quite.

You may have the tools at your disposal, and may even know how to use all of them. But if you can’t formulate a strong vision around why you are constructing the house (and who it will be for), how they plan to use and interact with the house (ie, is it really a smart idea to install a toilet upside down on the ceiling?), what the price range of the homeowner will be, if they live alone or have a massive family, and so on, then the tools you spent so much time getting proficient at are basically useless.

Instead, focus on the process. As someone who is a current user experience designer, I can tell you that programs are not hard to learn. You can pick up how to use a program anywhere from a week to a single afternoon, and the tools and processes you are expected to use vary from job to job.

If you can put together some really solid blueprints that highlight your competence in this field, those will be more important than the tools themselves.

A well-organized spreadsheet is your best friend. Chaos and disorganization is your worst enemy.

Computer with a spreadsheet
Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

Keep track of every job you apply for. Yes, EVERY single job you applied for. Even the “one-click apply” jobs you see on Zip Recruiter and LinkedIn.

Trust me, I have learned this both the easy way, as well as the hard way. It will help you out significantly when a recruiter or hiring manager calls you back, as well as reminding you what the specific requirements that the jobs are asking for.

And like being a user experience designer, you want to treat the job hunt very much like a user experience project. That means documenting your work, measuring outcomes, identifying what each company responds to (remember, each company has different asks and needs, after all), and so on.

Set up a Google docs page, and document things such as:

  • Name of the company
  • The industry they are in
  • Location of the company (you can get as specific as street address if they are local, or just document the city and state. It’s up to you.)
  • For local positions, knowing how far you would need to commute each day is incredibly helpful, so distance and time to get there is a useful consideration.
  • Date you applied
  • Link to the company website
  • Link to the job posting
  • Your overall thoughts on the company
  • How many years of experience they are asking for
  • If you spoke to a recruiter (and the recruiter’s name)
  • If you spoke to a hiring manager (and their name)

In addition, I have found it to be extremely helpful to highlight companies that have shown interest in you, which makes them visually easy to pick out from the chart. Whatever color scheme you choose to use is entirely up to you. I like to use green for the jobs that responded back to me, and light gold for any jobs that didn’t (you don’t have to document the jobs that auto rejected you, but I do so I can keep track of who I am still waiting to hear back from, and gold or some positive color is way nicer to look at than red, black or brown. Gross!).

And keep your spreadsheet updated regularly! If you apply for a new job, document it! If you get an interview, document it! If you learn more about a company, document it!

Make sure you are drawing your direct skills to the outcomes the business wants

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Some of the best and also most common career advice I hear is to not treat every job application the same way. And there is a reason for this.

Imagine the last time you received a cold-blasted, copy-paste email from someone. Did it make you feel as if the individual was talking to you specifically, when the opening of the email started with “Hello sir or ma’am”?

And yet, we as job applicants do this ALL OF THE TIME. We send out generic resumes. We don’t fully read the job description. We don’t research the company before applying, and instead, we rely on the recruiter to tell us about the company we just applied for. We don’t take the time to fully understand how the digital product they are trying to perfect even works, the audience it serves, or it’s intended result.

We simply apply and move on.

And I get it. I know there are thousands upon thousands of jobs out there you can apply for, and you probably don’t want to spend a ton of time getting to know each company, when most of them will probably turn you down. But how you apply for the job matters, and the extra effort you put in to understand the company from the beginning goes a LONG way.

For the jobs that do give you an interview, even if it is a recruiter screening call, you want to be able to already have a decent understanding of the service, what it does, and how it serves it’s target demographic. Don’t wait for them to tell you what they do; find out for yourself.

And if you speak to a hiring manager, such as the director of user experience (ie, your potential new boss), you should already be able to tell them inside and out, to the best of your knowledge from the outside world, what they do, who they serve, etc. You should also look for how your skills in your previous career translate into serving this specific company and position.

For example, as a former marine biologist, I have found that selling my skills on a strong understanding of research, being able to ask the right questions, knowing how to test and re-test to get the right answers, how to set up really kickass research has been a HUGE selling point for companies who want to hire me (or at least, for the ones I was meant to wind up in).

I also believe nearly anyone’s prior experience can translate, in some shape or form, to their new career in user experience.

  • If you come from a teaching background, for instance, you can use your little human management skills to work effectively in teams and explain complex subjects in a simple way.
  • If you come from a STEM background (like me!), you can hard-sell your skills on research, knowing sampling biases, asking the right questions, and testing and re-testing to get the desired outcomes.
  • If you come from a background in computer science, you already have a head-start on understanding the limitations developers face. You also have an additional skill set to supplement for a more technical UX position.
  • If you come from a corporate business management position, you know how businesses are run, the needs they have, etc.
Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will life it’s life believing it is stupid.
Photo courtesy of nceatalk.org

I believe that each of us brings our own unique gifts to user experience, and it is our job to tie in how those not only help us create our own “UX superpowers”, but how they also help further the business outcomes of the particular company you are interviewing for.

Just make sure you are strongly tying in your experience with the business needs and outcomes.

Be honest about your skills (ie, don’t get too cocky)

This goes without saying that just because you paid a bootcamp however much money to enter the field, does not make you the next Jakob Nielsen or Steve Jobs. Like it or not, you are still on the bottom of the food chain, below people who have spent years, and even decades mastering their craft.

But honestly, that is not a bad thing. If you stick with this field, you will eventually get to the top. But you have a LONG way to go.

I will also admit that there is still a ton I have to learn as well. I am by no means at the peak of my wisdom in this field, and even people who have been doing this for over 20 years will still admit they don’t know everything. And that’s okay; we are all students of life, along for the ride.

Han Solo says “Great kid, don’t get cocky”!
So you know how to operate Sketch and a bunch of other programs as of last week, huh? Look out, we have ourselves a badass! Star Wars is owned by Disney. Image found on imageflip.com

On the other hand, there is the ever-so-gnawing feeling that eats at all of us. And it is merciless. It goes after anyone, in pretty much any age group, all ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and so on. It does not care who you are, what you desire, or how badly you want it.

I know I have experienced it. I guarantee you have, too. Hell, even UX leads and directors experience it. And plenty of CEOs have experienced it as well.

You may think that I am about to talk about imposter syndrome as it is commonly explained, and frankly, that was my original intent. But then I read a comment from UX industry veteran author of Delta CX, Debbie Levitt, which made me stop and rethink what we label as imposter syndrome, and that maybe, that nagging feeling can actually be used to serve us.

Reading this post completely changed my view on how I look at imposter syndrome, and how we label it. Thanks for the insight, Debbie! The original post can be found here

Debbie’s “Delta CX” podcast interview with Dr. Seth Finkle revealed that new people often misinterpret that nagging feeling for imposter syndrome. But it is actually not imposter syndrome at all, but a sense of self-awareness.

And that should not be a bad thing. In fact, new UX designers can often use that to their advantage and learn from it. You are in uncharted territory that you have (likely) never explored. Instead of calling it imposter syndrome, we can call it for what it is; self-awareness. After all, you, like all of the other newbies, you probably know very little about this field, and that is perfectly okay; we all knew nothing about UX design at some point in our lives!

In my article “10 Sobering Realities Every Brand-New UX Designer Needs to Accept”, I introduced the Dunning-Kruger effect, where the more inexperienced someone is, oftentimes the more they think they know everything, which is the most dangerous point to be at in one’s career.

Once the new UX designer becomes more exposed to the industry, they quickly realize how little they actually know, where they drop from the peak of “Mt. Stupid” down to the “Valley of Despair”.

For the people who feel anxious and know what they don’t know, they have achieved the first step towards career enlightenment. From there, they get to slowly climb the long, yet gentle slope, where they are able to sustainably achieve true wisdom and experience in this field.

Dunning-Kruger chart
Graphic credit: Online Pet Health

While the Dunning-Kruger Effect came around in modern history (back in 1999), I also see evidence of the same phenomenon, described in traditional tarot cards (which happens to be one of my other fascinations).

What many people do not realize is that tarot originated from 15th-century (some accounts even speculate 14th century) Europe, and became Italian playing cards that were never meant to be used for telling fortunes. Instead, they highlight a series of events woven into a story that represents our lives (within the Arcana Major part of the deck). This eventually gave birth to the original Rider-Waite tarot deck (seen below), which came around in 1909, five years before the start of the First World War.

Two tarot cards; The Fool (on the left), and The World (on the right).
The first card in the original Rider-Waite tarot deck (The Fool), right next to the last card in the deck; The World. Photo came from Pinterest

The first card in the series highlights The Fool, who is cocky and arrogant. He has no sense of the external world and is used to his sheltered life. His naivety leads him to believe that he can venture out on his own with only a small knapsack, and his bold confidence makes him believe he is impervious to harm.

Hence, this is why he walks along a steep cliff wall, seeming to be completely unaware of the danger he is placing himself in.

In other words, he represents the peak of “Mt. Stupid”. Of course, as we progress through the deck, our “hero of the story” (who is represented by numerous people, across a variety of ages and genders), gains new wisdom, experiences the highest joys and the worst hardships, and becomes molded by life in many dramatic ways.

The last card in the series, known as The World, metaphorically portrays someone who has become incredibly wise and shaped by their experiences. This card portrays a levitating woman, surrounded by symbols representing all of the wisdom she has accumulated over the course of a lifetime.

Any raw arrogance that used to exist has now been replaced with humbleness and wisdom.

Many incredibly skilled UX designers I know who have been in this industry for 20, 30, or even 40+ years have openly admitted to me that they still don’t know everything. Even having been tested with time, these longtime UX veterans still retain humility, and simultaneously are confident, not in their ability to “know everything”, but instead to find the answers they need, with the tools they have developed over the years.

So if you feel that nagging feeling in the back of your head that you don’t know everything, I would like to be the first to congratulate you on your self-awareness! It sounds like you are officially over the hump of Mt. Stupid and climbing the slow, yet gentle peak out of the Valley of Despair. You are no longer the fool, as you have progressed and experienced the world. I believe that solid experience with good mentorship and guidance is the single best cure to those nagging feelings.

Be realistic about the companies that you want to work at

Image of Google sign
Nope, sorry. Unless you have a crazy amount of connections, you will not be working here once you graduate from your bootcamp. Photo by Greg Bulla on Unsplash

As I thoroughly mentioned in my article, 10 Sobering Realities Every Brand-New UX Designer Needs To Accept, your chances of landing a job at a top tech company upon graduation from your bootcamp, with no experience, and without a ridiculous amount of connections with people in key positions that love you so much they are willing to take a chance on you, are basically zero.

Yes, I know that may hurt to hear. But that’s not a bad thing, either.

Consider that not everyone who applies to an Ivy Leauge school gets accepted (the vast majority don’t). Hell, not everyone even goes to college, for that matter.

Does that mean that the people who didn’t get accepted into Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc are dumb? Of course not. In fact, there are tons of absolutely brilliant people, who will never need to set foot on a top-tier college campus, for the same reason that tons of incredibly skilled UX designers with decades of experience will never need to work even a day at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, Amazon, etc in order to have a successful career.

Even fantastic UX designers do not get hired by Google!
Professional UX designers like Kasey know that even for long time industry veterans, getting a job at Google is still pretty insanely difficult. Link to the original post can be found here

We tend to think that being at a top-tier tech company will define our careers. But the truth is, it is just a job like any other. People leave Google to work at small, unknown startups all of the time. Between the people I have personally spoken with who work at these top tech companies, and accounts of what it is like to work at these places, I have found that the vast majority of them say that beyond the cool offices and the big name on one’s resume, it is still a job, where you collaborate with team members to create a product, like any other company.

In fact, many accounts highlight that working at a company like Google can even be stressful, monotonous, frustrating, and even somewhat boring. Remember that these top tech companies are already built, and most of the additional features current designers are adding do not dramatically supplement the business.

I have even heard accounts of employees at a prominent Silicon Valley-based social media company (name omitted), who explain that working there is like a high school popularity contest; people are creating a lot of various projects, most of which don’t get implemented (or are minimal, if they are implemented), to justify their reason for working there.

Remember, these top-tech companies have already been built. Otherwise, they would not be “top tech companies” if they were still in startup mode, after all.

This means that any UX contributions you provide, no matter how skilled you are (or become), will be quite minimal. If you want to be one of thousands upon thousands of cogs in a behemoth of a machine, then work for a top tech company. If you want to have a huge influence over a product, work at a startup.

Even among a company like Google, Netflix, Twitter, etc, remember that thousands upon thousands of employees already work there. And while they do a lot of brainstorming and conceptual work, a lot of the work each individual employee contributes is actually quite minimal.

Compare that to the relatively unknown startups that exist everywhere, and the difference of impact between both companies is the difference between night and day. In one, you are a tiny cog in a massive behemoth of a machine. In the other, you are one of the sole, driving forces on a speedy, nimble vehicle. Not everyone wants to permanently stay at a place like Google, and that is okay!

And that is not to say that you can’t work at Google, or a top tech company later on in your carer. But chances are 1,000,000 times more likely that you will work at a fairly unknown company that creates something that may not have the most exciting service, at least for your first job. And that’s fine!

And similarly, be open to opportunities you may have not seen

While I have covered this to a much greater extent in my other article, 10 Sobering Realities Every Brand-New UX Designer Needs to Accept, I do want to highlight that you do NOT need to land your first, or second or even third job in Silicon Valley.

In fact, you do not even need to work in any prominent tech hub to have a successful career in user experience. My experience in this field (up to the point that I wrote this article) has been in Tennessee and Utah. Not in San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or Seattle, or Austin, or New York City.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

In fact, trying to break into these much more popular tech markets can actually work AGAINST new UX designers, more than it can help. I have met people who moved to a place like San Francisco or New York City with no UX experience and expecting their first job, just to realize how badly they are getting outcompeted by skilled UX designers with lots more experience, for the same work.

Similarly, there are tech opportunities in less saturated markets, which I believe are golden opportunities for new UX designers to get their experience in a place that needs help, but there is much lower competition for.

My first UX job offer was not in Silicon Valley but in eastern Tennessee. Although it was not my first pick as far as locations go, it allowed me to gain entry-level experience at a fast-paced agency. That ultimately opened the floodgates to newer, better opportunities.

There are UX positions all around the country, but they might be located in places that people are not flocking to. There are cities all around the south, north, and midwest for example, that have growing tech scenes, but the supply for skilled tech workers in those places are much lower. For example, Huntsville, Alabama has a growing tech scene. Same with Lehi, Utah. Same with New Orleans, Louisiana. Same with Chattanooga, Tennessee. Same with Savannah, Georgia. Same with Raleigh, North Carolina. Same with Des Moine, Iowa. And so on.

If you are willing and able to relocate for those positions, I strongly encourage you to open yourself up to it. Look outside the box, and be open to these positions in places that have a demand for tech work, but are not necessarily in the traditional places one would think to look.

Continue educating yourself, even after your bootcamp is finished

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

This goes without saying, but your education in user experience never really ends, even after your bootcamp is finished. I am still learning all of the time. So are industry professionals who have been doing this forever. Technology is always changing at such a mind-boggling rate, and designs that are meant for tech today may become far less relevant in a couple of years.

As far as resources I recommend to keep educating yourself, one of my favorite places to learn UX design is the Interaction Design Foundation. There are also other great resources, such as Udemy, Coursera, and LinkedIn Learning.

In Conclusion

It is important to realize that entering into a new field, whatever it happens to be, is never easy. There will be ups and downs. You will have to make sacrifices. And yes, you will have to stay sane. But career changes happen all of the time, and while it’s important to know your limitations, you also want to keep your eyes out for what is possible, too.

I also accept connections on LinkedIn. So if you liked the article, send me a connection request!

https://www.linkedin.com/in/sharperux/

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Samuel Harper
Growing Into UX

Professional UX designer and UX career coach; I help brand-new UX designers land their first jobs, excel in their first jobs, and network like a badass!