Sink, Swim, or Cross a Bridge

Reflections from 4 Product Design Grads on Cohort 1

Pallavi Thampi
· 10 min read

Bridge for Product Designers Cohort 2 applications are now open until January 22, 2019.


It has been a few months since Bridge’s first Product Design program wrapped up, and having taken up a new opportunity since then, my life got very busy very quickly, with little time to look back. I’m grateful to now have an opportunity to reflect on the program that re-routed my career and introduced me to so many wonderful people. To shed some light on the experience, I reached out to three of my classmates, Jen Zhang, Pavi Logeswaran, and Marjorie Castro from Cohort One.

Jen presenting her final product on the last day of class.

Education that Empowers

Bridge is accessible tech education like no other. Built on the basis of amplifying the voices of women, non-binary and agender folks in software development and product design, Bridge offers free, hands-on 11-week courses that empower junior developers and designers to transition to intermediate, and eventually senior roles.

In the first Product Design cohort, all 12 of us were keen on deepening our product design practice, delving into discovery, facilitation, user research, prototyping and pitching. We were a diverse bunch, coming from various pathways that had led us into building products or bettering services. Some of us came from early stage startups, some from agencies or larger companies, and some of us were between jobs. We were united in a common intention: to cross the Bridge and land that next opportunity.

Jen was a Visual Designer in title, but took on journey mapping experiences as well as designing interfaces. Marjorie was working at a fin-tech startup transitioning from interaction design to Product Design. Pavi on the other hand, was pivoting from an entirely different career path when she applied to Bridge.

Pavi: “After hitting a glass ceiling in my prior career as a Biochemist, I wanted to pursue my true passion. I taught myself UX Design while handling a full time job and part time responsibilities of teaching. Eventually, I quit my full time job to take an immersive course at General Assembly to further my knowledge.”

When I started Bridge, I was working on a mobile app at a startup that delivered meal kits. My excitement at guiding the creation of the app was quickly overshadowed by the fact that I was initially seen by my team as an UI designer. Advocating for the user’s experience and for conducting research were my main challenges.

Bridge was the next logical step for all of us

We were there to develop more catalytic skills (more commonly referred to as “soft skills”) like facilitation, research synthesis, pitching to clients, and product design strategy. But most of us were drawn to Bridge for the safe space where we could be ourselves, make mistakes, and fail headfirst.

Jen: “I wanted a sense of validation that, I too, can be a part of the product’s roadmap from beginning to end… In a sense, I felt building on my skills would help ease my feeling of imposter syndrome while at work.”

Pavi: “I had the knowledge, but I always wondered if I was using the right toolkit. I was tired of being judged as a Junior Designer and I want to understand and know my worth. I wanted to learn from expert designers in an open environment where I could confidently ask questions and advance my skills. I was ready for the next step.”

Pavi charting a user journey map.

My reasons for applying to program like Bridge were twofold. Yes, I wanted to broaden my skill-set, but I also knew I wanted to grow my design community and share my experiences with other designers and women.

Speaking from my experience as a racialized woman, the consequences of “failing” in a mostly white, mostly male startup feel all too real. In unsupportive environments, it’s easy for your knowledge and skills to get discounted and your credibility to be under constant scrutiny despite your experience. There are few ways you can actually grow without the right mentorship and support.

Really, we learned the most from our mistakes

During our classes, we had to confront some of our weaknesses and insecurities, such as, public speaking, time management, and making mistakes in front of others. In one of the first classes on facilitation, we were split up into groups of two, leading a facilitation activity through Clarity Canvas (Rangle’s stakeholder discovery framework). The “Fakeholders” were giving us a hard time as per instruction, but I remember inserting myself into a point of contention between them to move conversation along. I realized it was more important to guide the process through probing questions and use the ‘Parking Lot’ generously to facilitate more productive meetings.

Jen: “Public speaking is not my forté. Having to present your work and your progress almost weekly was certainly a challenge. One of the most memorable pieces of advice given to me was by Naomi Bower. She told me to remember that people generally want each other to do good, that the room is rooting for you, and sincerely care about what you have to say.”

While balancing full-time roles with 6 hours of in-class learning per week, and 10–15 hours of homework was no piece of cake, the intensity and immersion of Bridge propelled our learning. Pavi focused on creating short and concise presentations to stakeholders to manage her time more effectively. She overcame the temptation of presenting design artifacts and process and focusing on pitching in a compelling business language that stakeholders could understand.

Marj: “One the biggest challenges I faced was allowing myself to make mistakes in front of others during the learning process. I overcame this with time by reminding myself that we were all there to grow and sharing our mistakes was valuable to all during our journey. Also, Bridge instructors reminded us that this was a safe space where we could experiment without judgement.”

These challenges we encountered made us trust our own abilities and embrace the learning process whatever form it took.

Instructor, Lindsie leading a session.

Levelling Up: Tips from Bridge Grads

1. To align and clarify business and user objectives, ask the right questions.

Facilitation was a favourite session amongst all of us. We learned how to ask questions that provoke answers and how to stop conversations from deviating during a stakeholder meeting.

Jen reflected her time at Bridge has made her more critical — whether it is of the questions she asks stakeholders or the type of words she uses to check her own bias.

Jen: “I found the facilitation fundamentals super insightful and valuable. When the business and the job is more or less placed on your hands, you have to know how to conduct these workshops with stakeholders, and how to conduct them well.”

2. To persuade someone, know what they want to hear.

Our instructors at Bridge emphasized the importance of communication throughout the course. As designers we “pitch” in small ways everyday to convince our internal teams and stakeholders of design decisions.

Marj: “Pitching is a 100% learnable skill. There are three main tactics Aristotle and Naomi Bower say we can use to persuade our audience — ethos, pathos and logos — adding these into a pitch will allow us to establish trust, awaken listeners emotions, and use data to backup a pitch.”

3. To improve, lean into discomfort (like a badass).

We all rallied around the idea that there are facets of Product Design that don’t come naturally for a beginner. The only way to crush impostor syndrome was to go for the things that made us mad anxious.

Marj: “Requesting and giving feedback is essential to becoming a badass. To quote one our fearless leaders Naomi Bower, “Lean into the discomfort”. I practiced asking for and giving feedback during design reviews and at the end of each class.”

Jen: “I learned that everything takes practice and time to finesse; those questions we ask the stakeholder will become more intuitive as you conduct more interviews, and pitching to clients will be less scary! I realized that a lot of us suffer from imposter syndrome, but should hold confidence that we are capable of so much as product designers.”

4. To grow, know where you’d grow best.

The ethics session led by Lindsie Canton has a special place in my heart. It solidified the fact that it wasn’t simply enough for me to find a product role at any start up. I was able to shed the limitations I’d placed on myself to pursue what was most aligned with myself and my sense of worth.

5. To keep learning, stay connected in the community.

All of us were in agreement that learning together and from each other was invaluable. Without Bridge and the community it fosters, we couldn’t have grown in depth as well as breadth.

Jen: “I now know where I am the weakest, strongest, or hold the least interest in, as well as how I want to shape my role in my company. It was a wonderful experience deep diving into each module (research, facilitation, research synthesis, strategy, ideation, usability testing, pitching) and being truly open to making mistakes and learning together as a cohort.”

Marj: “Applying for the program and taking the opportunity to level up was my biggest win. I learned a variety of skills and met an amazing group of people I respect and admire.”

From left to right: Keiko, Jen, Marj and Evelyn.

What makes Bridge unique?

Jen: “Having taken a full time UX course before, it’s evident how much more initiative the cohort must have to be able to juggle full time jobs and life on top of your Bridge workload. But the key difference is certainly how the entire room always felt comfortable with being vulnerable with each other. Knowing that we are constantly in a safe space made me feel human, respected, and valued.”

Pavi: “Bridge school gave us hands on experiences and real time application. In addition, all of this takes place in a safe learning environment where you feel comfortable to ask questions and make mistakes. The rewarding part of this was sharing my learnings and being able to apply it to my job.”

I found my other educational experience in UX were focused on outputs and deliverables. I knew the right things to do, and the processes, what made something successful, but I lacked the finesse of a more practiced designer.

Some of our amazing instructors and TAs from Cohort 1!

Bridge gave us a space to be ourselves and learn from each other, but it also gave me more transferable skills than any other program I’ve done, in facilitation, pitching, and running workshops. I felt like the staff (all of whom were doing this on their own time), were completely dedicated, supportive and genuinely cared about each student. You were more than a metric at Bridge.


Six months later…

Marj: “I’m working as a Product Designer for Explorux. I have taken greater initiative to facilitate design sessions, usability testing and research, using the skills I gained during the program. I’m grateful to the entire Bridge School team for this initiative and dedication to the program. You are making a significant impact on the tech industry and your students lives. Thank you!”

Pavi: “During the program I was offered a Product Designer role at Capital One. I’m able to apply and share my learnings from Bridge School. It’s made me appreciate continuing education, Now, I’m always on the lookout to learn something new and apply it to my career. I loved meeting and getting to know all the amazing folks in the program. I learned so much from just observing the instructors in their element.”

Jen was also promoted from a Visual Designer to a UX Designer at her company, doing what she loves.

While wrapping up Bridge, I knew I was ready for an opportunity that aligned with my values and was the direction I wanted to run in. I was a better advocate for myself. I’m currently a UX Design Fellow with Code for Canada, a non-profit that embeds product teams within the government for 9 months. I have agency and say in my role, and have just wrapped up two months of leading intensive user research to a complex problem in the public sector. I owe this transition to the wonderful mentors I met through Bridge, who encouraged me to assess my worth and more importantly, act on it.

That post-presentation glow.

We need more spaces like this

If education is the first step in empowerment, we need more spaces like this that support women and non-binary folks, programs that are free of barriers, and which are built iteratively for and with marginalized groups in tech. Our experiences, the lenses through which we view the world are doubly important, especially in disciplines like Product Design that have an impact on our built and virtual environments. Diverse representation is simply not enough. Bridge not only builds capacity at the junior or intermediate level, but the kind of capacity required in leadership roles that design and shape technology used by all of us.

itsbridgeschool

We skill up and support women, agender, and non-binary professionals via free software development and product design programs in Toronto.

Thanks to Bridge School

Pallavi Thampi

Written by

UX Fellow | Code for Canada. Equity, ethics, & empowerment in tech. She/Her.

itsbridgeschool

We skill up and support women, agender, and non-binary professionals via free software development and product design programs in Toronto.

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