Branching Out

Embracing the lack of limitations on my internship

Here in Austin, summer is upon us. Five years ago at this time, I began a summer design internship: my first real job. I was enthusiastic but terrified. With a little more perspective, I was able to reframe my fears and move to where I am now, in a senior role at the same company.

At the time I took the internship, I was a student at the University of Texas. When I began studying at UT, I didn’t know that it was considered a “theory school” when it came to design. We focused heavily on the process and thinking that went into each project. A polished final product was a lower priority.

In a professional environment, some clients need to see the final product to understand the value of the thinking that went into it. As one of my first projects at thirteen23, I created a reimagined version of an existing app to show clients how it could be used in a different context. A polished UI made it believable for our clients. On the other hand, UT’s focus on process made me put more thought behind my visual choices. It was important that the app didn’t just look nice, but that I could defend my decisions and answer every question that came up.

Internships are typically known as a way to gain familiarity with your industry, and thirteen23’s willingness to immediately put me into the heart of projects certainly helped me. However, the greatest benefit I found in my internship was that it was a foil for what I learned in school.

My internship and education each served a different purpose, and each benefitted from the other.
Branches need roots and roots need branches.

Not only were project goals different in my internship, the boundaries of my responsibilities were less defined. At a university, your accomplishments have to be measurable and parceled out. Becoming a functioning part of an agency was much more fluid. I started off by frequently asking to be assigned tasks, but eventually moved to being more self-directed. This was an uncomfortable transition at first, in which I constantly questioned myself for the choices I made.

I didn’t realize that other people felt the same discomfort I did. A sense that everyone else knows more than you do is all too common, and particularly bad in the tech industry. Julie Zhou articulated the feeling well:

“They say fake it til you make it, and so I thought that by method acting who I wanted to be, day in and day out, I would eventually become that person, and none would be the wiser. Actually, that line of thinking turned out to be idiotic. I denied myself the solace that comes from being able to openly admit fears to people I trust, and missed out on the power of their empathy and advice.”

I can certainly relate to that anxiety. When you’re new to something, it’s easy to feel that you don’t know enough to participate. But avoiding participation can damage your relationship with your team. I found that flipping this belief — the one that says you’re not good enough — to become “there’s always more to learn” helped me see things clearly. Thinking about it this way let me understand how this applies to everyone.

As the great Don Henley said:

“The more I know, the less I understand”

A set of new, mysterious paths will always open to you with each new piece of knowledge you gain. At first this feels intimidating and wrong, like you’re the only one left out of the loop. The truth is that everyone finds themselves in this place no matter how long they’ve been around, and realizing where you haven’t been doesn’t make you inadequate. Welcome the things you don’t know. They are an opportunity to find a place where you can be of service to others.

Your environment shapes you, just like you shape your environment.
Being a designer means responding to human needs. It’s important to know how to find where you’re needed.

For me, embracing this started by realizing that my supervisors weren’t wildly different from me. Just like me, they didn’t necessarily enjoy delegating or filling in the gaps of my workday. I started making tasks for myself on projects, and searching for problems in my systems instead of dreading them. When I saw overlooked areas that were worth pursuing, I pursued them.

Finding opportunities for small improvements in my projects turned out to be a valuable skill. This required basic familiarity with the industry and regular communication with managers, but I didn’t need to have years of experience under my belt to begin. I gave up struggling to discover the boundaries of my role in favor of defining them myself.

Stacy-Marie Ishmael summed this up well on the podcast Another Round:

“You need to be useful to the people around you. Spend some time figuring out what it is that people are doing and what you already see that can be helpful to them. At the end of every day, ask yourself: did you learn anything? Did you help anyone else? If you can tick those boxes every single day, you’ve had a successful internship, even if it doesn’t turn into a job.”

In my case, my internship did turn into a job, and a senior position a few years later. Flexibility in taking on tasks and a willingness to find new problems to be solved both contributed to my growth, according to my employers.

For Prospective Interns

I lucked out and landed in a really good company. I didn’t have some of the practical issues my friends did, but if you’re looking for an internship this summer you should also consider the following:

  • Not every employer gives as much freedom as mine. The rules and traditions of your particular organization are important — they influence how much you should do without explicit direction.
  • Make sure you’re being paid to do the work you do. Financially speaking, I could not have taken an unpaid internship at the time I took my paid one at thirteen23. An unpaid internship is a red flag — the company is supporting a culture where only privileged students with a support net can intern.
  • It’s important to know the reasonable limits of your job. Make sure you’re not being asked to do something completely outside of your job description that won’t forward your career. Going above and beyond isn’t right in every circumstance.

For People with More Experience

Being well-established in a career doesn’t mean that you stop learning. I’d encourage anyone who’s comfortable in their role to follow the same advice. Look for missing pieces of the puzzle. Embrace problems that appear in the systems you create, and solve them instead of glossing over them. Make the practice of expansion part of your daily routine.

Other Perspectives

I’ve had a pretty specific path into the tech industry — there are many challenges I haven’t had to face. I’d recommend reading accounts from others to get a better picture of the many ways to transition into the field of interaction design.

  • The Techies Project is a series of interviews chronicling the difficulties and successes of people entering the tech industry.
  • I referenced Julie Zhou’s writing earlier. Her series of essays for The Looking Glass cover even more ground.
  • Dear Design Student is an advice column staffed by industry vets who have good tips for new designers.
  • At Campfires, designers share stories and advice for others in the field.
  • Mike Monteiro’s book Design is a Job is a collection of blunt, practical advice that was really helpful to me as I started working in design.

I’ve also been talking with my teammates lately about their road to our company. My co-worker Natalie recently wrote about her transition from a large corporation to a smaller agency, and there are more stories on the way.

If this article was helpful to you, leaving your 👏 would help me spread the word! If you think of something I missed or have questions about the tech industry in Austin, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.

If you’re a prospective intern interested in working with thirteen23, we’d love to hear from you at jobs@thirteen23.com. Learn more about thirteen23 on Facebook and Twitter or get in touch at thirteen23.com.