Inside Bukalapak: How I landed a product design job at 18 for one of Indonesia’s unicorns
I didn’t have an undergraduate degree. I didn’t go to design school. I have never taken any UX crash course. And, I have never lived in a big city. However, by my 18th birthday, I had already begun working as a product designer at Bukalapak.
This is a story about how I started my career as a product designer at one of the biggest product design teams in Indonesia despite all the cards stacked against me. I write this post as inspiration for all the other young people who face similar challenges as me and as evidence that with hard work and determination, anything is possible!
1. You don’t need to be in Jakarta to become a designer
I grew up in Purwokerto, a small town in Central Java with a population of only 230k, and my education was at SMK Telkom Purwokerto high school majoring in software engineering. Many people who aspire to be a designer sometime complain that is very tough to develop design skills if you don’t live in Indonesia’s major cities such as Jakarta or Bandung. In some ways this is true: there are no design or UX meetups in this relatively sleepy town; don’t even think about a UX community where people can learn from one another! But that didn’t stop me!
The first task was to find mentors! Through Dribbble, Facebook, and Instagram, I reached out to these designers and asked whether they would be willing to act as mentors.
Second, I took advantage of any visit to the bigger cities by visiting some design studios. When I visited Yogyakarta, for example, I visited Sebo, Omnicreativora, Paperpillar, and Oww. There I met many senior designers, asked a lot of questions, and started building my network.
Third, I actively participated in design and tech competitions. In those events, I met likeminded people and gained a lot of insights from them. If you don’t live in Jakarta, Bandung, or Surabaya, don’t give up! Be creative (you are a designer, after all)! There are always ways to find and learn from design communities around the world. Or start one of your own in your town; I bet you will be surprised to find you are not the only designer in town!
2. Use the resources at hand!
I read design articles and resources from my high school library. And of course I lied! 😆
Similar to other people, I use this little invention known as the Internet!
These days, even if you don’t go to a design school, there are so many insights about design and UX online, many available for free. These are just some sites which I visited frequently: Insight Design, UX Magazine, UX Movement, Designmodo, UX Booth, and Designer News.
And academic literature and articles are just the tip of the iceberg! I also gathered inspiration from other designers. A wise man once said:
“great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”
I examined what other designers did by checking out their portfolios on dribbble, behance, awwwards, and uplabs. This was my inspiration. From there, I tried to imitate (to practice and hone my skills) and improve (to develop a style all my own).
3. Honing my design skills
Unfortunately, there was no information architecture course in my high school, nor did I have any teacher to whom I could give feedback to or share opinions with on other UX topics. Despite this setback, I was able to hone my design skill in a more effective and productive way: by spending time practicing real design work!
Yes, having a mentor is useful to stay on the right path. Yes, reading design articles online is useful to gain new ideas. But none of those are substitute for actually getting out there and designing stuff!
I practiced in several ways. First, I would create fake projects for myself. I was both the client and the design studio hired to solve the client’s challenge. I would define the design problem from the client’s perspective and try to solve it as a designer would. The following image is an example of one of my “fake” design project in which I designed a marketplace hub for workshops and seminars.
The second way was to do real design freelancing projects/contests from Topcoder, 99Designs, or Freelancer.com. Most of the time, I did not win the contest, although I would have argued that I should have! 😃 However, these contests helped to improve my design skills and understand real-world projects. And, for the contests I did win, I earned some extra money and gained exciting additional projects for my portfolio. I also joined offline competitions such as those mentioned on di info lomba it, info sayembara, or lomba asia, and joined hackathons happening near around me.
4. Building my personal brand and online presence
Achmad Zaky, Bukalapak CEO, personally offered me a job not because I am smart or I won any International CS Olympics, but rather because he connected with me and knew what I was about based on my personal brand and online presence. For every project (fake or real ones), I would document those in my dribbble account. It just so happened he came across these and saw not only that I was a hard worker, but that even though I made mistakes or didn’t win competitions, I learned, improved, and strove to continually better myself! If you haven’t built your personal brand and online presence, start doing it now! Just put something up there and risk a little criticism. It will pay off in the end.
5. Do you want to be a policeman or a military guy?
My dad is in the army and of course he wanted me to be in army too. He once asked me
“I will register you into army, would you want to do it? If not, how about becoming a policeman?”
However, this was really more a command than a question.
I could understand his aspiration; he just wanted what he thought was the best for me. However, this was his dream, not mine. I chose to be bold with my conviction; I loved design and I wanted to be a designer. It was not easy to have this conversation or to tell this to my dad, but I’m glad I respect myself enough to follow my own path, and in the end I’m sure he appreciated that I was standing by my convictions. In the end, the most important thing was to stay true to myself and my dream.
And here I am! I have been working at Bukalapak for 3 months. I have been experiencing so many great things: projects, people, and experiences. I especially love the meritocracy culture of our team. People don’t look down on me because of my young age or because I don’t have any undergraduate degree; rather, they judge me based on my character and the output of my work. The best ideas win!
I hope my story and my suggestions remind you that there is always a way! Just be creative! You don’t necessarily need to go to a design school, live in a major city, or have UX certifications to succeed in design. If you have the passion, work hard, and never give up your convictions, it can happen to you too!
Finally, if this post inspired you and you want join Bukalapak product design team that really values meritocracy and in which the best ideas win please just ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to chat with you!