Research and Preparation for a Career Change

Before you reach out to people or start blasting applications, do your homework

Photo from Pixabay

After about 4 years of account management and consultation in technology, I realized late 2015 that I wanted to go into a creative field, though I still wanted to work in technology. Reflection and discussion led me to develop some interest in UX as a career field. I was excited about a career change but I did not have an Human-Computer Interaction degree, I had no formal training, and I didn’t have formal UX experience. Despite these handicaps, I worked hard over the next 6 months and ended up with an awesome UX role.

For years people came to me for resume or interview prep advice. I lurked on career coaching sites and collected notes. This job hunt was my chance to document and report my exact process to help others find jobs. I could weed through what worked vs. what didn’t work. There is no ONE correct way to find a job. I can only share what specifically worked for me. Thus, I will mention UX a lot but I think it can be applied to other roles/fields.

My pet peeve in career advice is that it’s not often clear whether the tips or advice are for entry, mid, or senior level. This series is definitely targeted towards people looking for their first job or break into a new field. For transparency’s sake, I want to clarify some factors that probably affected my outcome and process:

  1. I do have a college degree, albeit a B.A. in International Affairs. UX does not necessary require a specific degree, though some companies do strongly prefer a Masters in Human Computer Interaction.
  2. While I don’t have formal full-time UX experience, I have 4 years of experience at tech companies and I used to do freelance brand and web design.
  3. I have a full-time job and a creative project that take up a substantial amount of time and energy so my time for job hunting was quite limited.

Regardless of whether those factors apply to you, I think people can still learn a couple tips on interview prep and building confidence from this article.

So let’s jump into it!

Preliminary Research

So I picked UX as a field to look into. Now what?

You gotta start with research. I needed to know what I was getting into. I looked up current trends, industry news, tools of the trade, job titles, job descriptions, and Googled “How do I get into UX?” I learned that there were several areas within UX like research, testing, development, design, etc. After a week of just doing preliminary research, I hopped on LinkedIn to see what 1st degree connections I had in the field. To do this, I just searched “UX,” filtered out 1st degree connections, and then sent out a wave of PMs.

1st Wave Outreach

This was my very first email to the 1st degree people I knew who were also in UX:

Hey ___!
Hope you’ve been well! I worked on a logo design for you a few years ago. I wanted to reach out because I’m researching making a career change towards UX and wondered if I could run my ideas and plans by you to get your feedback sometime.
I’d love just 15–30 minutes of your time. Basically I just want to know if I am on the right path, if my plan is too complicated, how I can streamline it, and what I need to keep in mind when it comes to this career path.
I am especially interested since you started as a support specialist at ___, which is very similar to my current support role. I’ve got ideas on how to make the transition but want some input from an experienced person in the field.
Would you be open to hopping on Skype sometime? Absolutely no hard feelings if you simply don’t have the time. Please let me know either way. Nonetheless, have a wonderful holiday!

Each email I sent out had 5 parts:

  1. Reminder of how we met
  2. What I am doing
  3. Why I reached out and what I am looking for
  4. Options for contact
  5. A graceful way to bow out — “Absolutely no hard feelings if you can’t …”

No one ever wants to feel obligated to do something and you never want to create awkwardness later down the road. Be sincere in saying “no hard feelings.” People get busy and things slip through. You must have patience. Plus, you’re in the needy seat right now. You are never entitled to someone else’s advice so don’t get angry when people don’t answer.

That being said, you will be surprised at how willing people can be to help. I was so touched to get as many responses as I did, some even met up with me in person to talk!

During this phase, the goal IS still to get some preliminary tips/direction, to learn about upcoming challenges, and to ultimately decide whether or not it really is the path you want to pursue. Some example questions I had for these phone calls:

  • I noticed on your LinkedIn that you transitioned from ___ to ___ back in 2010. How did you make that transition? What helped?
  • What is your favorite part about your job/field?
  • What is your least favorite part about your job/field?
  • What is something you did not expect when entering this field?
  • What types of projects do you typically work on?
  • What excites you about the work you do?
  • What frustrates you about the work you do?
  • Is this a field you see yourself staying in?
  • I’ve read online that the skills the industry are looking for is X, Y, and Z. What are your thoughts? Do you think that’s true? What would you add to this?
  • If you were in my shoes, what would you do?
  • What parts of my initial plan do you think I can trim out?

Try to be specific and avoid over-generalized questions. It’s better to ask “What three things helped you most in getting your first job in ___?” vs. “How do I get a job in ___?”

Allow these conversations to supplement your online research. This is your chance to get insights from someone who is working directly in the field and get real answers. I find that sometimes, advice found online does not always align with advice straight from the field. For example, a lot of sites will tell you that calling straight into the company for a job is a great idea because it shows initiative. Now that I’ve been on the other side of the job hunting fence, I can see that it can be quite annoying. Plus, it can come off bizarre/desperate or put certain people in an awkward position. The person who picked up might want to help but they might be new, don’t feel comfortable referring you right away, or they might simply have zero decision-making power in hiring. I’m sure it does work in some cases but this approach would require making hundreds of calls. That time might be better spent on networking or building experience. I’ve also seen advice on making your resume as flashy as possible. The ones that actually produce results are very few. Flashy resumes might even disqualify you if it’s too difficult for people to extract the right information from it.

When you rely solely on online advice, it’s easy to compare yourself to the best of the best and then fall into perfectionism or analysis paralysis.

Get real advice directly from real people.

Once you get some preliminary research from the web and your informational interviews, it’s time to compile your gameplan. My conversations led me to look into General Assembly, where I found an upcoming UX Bootcamp. I couldn’t afford the full immersive program but at least the bootcamp would be a start jumping off point and validate whether or not this is the field I actually want to pursue.

Questions to ask yourself after preliminary research:

  • How are you going to tackle the challenges coming ahead?
  • What can you do to work with what you have already on your resume?
  • What strengths do you need to expand?
  • What knowledge/skill gaps are there and what can you do to fill in that gap? Con-Ed classes? Pro-bono work?

Build a Minimum Viable “Portfolio”

If you’re not familiar with the concept of Minimal Viable Product from Lean Startup, it is the process of “ rapidly build[ing] a minimum set of features that is enough to deploy the product and test key assumptions about customers’ interactions with the product.” (Source) For me, I decided that the minimal portfolio I needed to pull together before feeling comfortable sharing it or submitting it anywhere would be 3 pieces. If you are a perfectionist like me, it helps to establish what a MVP Portfolio is because it is so easy to fall into the trap of perfectionism and feel “unprepared,” thinking you need 8 or 10+ pieces. And then of course you feel like none of those pieces are good enough and fall into a never ending cycle of building that perfect portfolio.

Perfection is not the goal here. Innovation is not the goal here. The goal is to produce a “good enough” portfolio that sufficiently shows off your skills. Prove that you are able to do the work. Work on things that are genuinely fun or interesting to you! I took a few sample UX portfolios and just reverse-engineered them to determine the structure and outline of my portfolio. In addition to the portfolio pieces, I also needed an explanation of my process, wireframes, etc.

If you aren’t in a visual field? This MVP portfolio may be case studies or pro-bono work. Regardless of what you end up doing to showcase your skills, you should write about your experience. I wish I had done my big UX write-up earlier in my job hunting process. It seriously makes it so much easier to follow up with contacts, prove your knowledge, share a thorough look into your thinking process, and supplement your interviews. Write about the problems you solved, how you arrived at the solution, what challenges you overcame, and what the outcome of the solution was.

Make your portfolio relevant to what you specifically want to do. For me, that meant excluding graphic design work. If I wanted to get into wireframing and prototyping interfaces, then I needed to make that a very obvious and apparent component of my portfolio. Be specific. For every decision you make on a project, explain the thinking behind the decision. The ability to solve problems is really what employers want to find.

Continue your research

I made it a goal to read at least one in-depth article or essay in my field each day. Medium, InVision, podcasts, and TEDTalks made this super easy. Let yourself gravitate towards the area of your field that excite you most. Your goal is to stay informed, develop your own opinions, and groom yourself for conversations in the field. Noting what you tend to gravitate towards will also help you become more specific in what type of position you need too. Despite my love and experience in pixel,perfect design, I found that wireframing the user flow, articles on interaction design, and findings on different demographic’s user behaviors fascinated me most. When I ran across a piece of jargon I was unfamiliar with, I would Google it. Lurk in conversations on Reddit, Quora, and StackOverflow. Get different perspectives on one subject find out what stirs up debates in your field. Be a total sponge. And if it is something you genuinely have an interest in, it won’t even feel like work. I know it didn’t for me.

During the build of your MVP Portfolio, you also want to start Googling “most common interview questions in ___.” This will help you figure out the skills/knowledge gaps you NEED to fill. Also, it’ll be nice not to completely be thrown off when you have your first interview and it helps with your continued research. For example, the most common interview in UX is: “What’s your UX process?” Knowing this, I can research various processes, exercises, and approaches and actually apply them during my MVP Portfolio projects and eventually come up with a process I like. And now I have an answer to that question.

Be more than a passive consumer of research

Journal about the stuff you read. Contribute a comment, even. You don’t want to simply be a passive consumer or just a parrot of these ideas. Form your own opinions and process that information. Granted, you will need to consume a lot before you have substantive input, but as you continue your research, keep comparing new content to previous content you’ve read. A few seasoned UX people have told me they were surprised to learn that I was not in the field after a lengthy conversation. I didn’t have a HCI degree so I knew I had to work double-time to catch up. Hopefully you are preparing for a field/job you have a sincere interest in. It helps with your attention span during research.

The three traits all employers want

Job-hunting and dating are very similar in MANY ways. When people describe the type of person they’d like to meet, I can already predict what they’re gonna say: attractive, funny, smart. Of course there are outliers but most of the time, these are the common denominator traits people seek in dating.

I’ve been on both sides of the job-hunting fence and I can boil down what employers want into three basic traits: timely, fast learner, and takes initiative. (Alternatively, Neil Gaiman boils it down to pleasant to work with, delivers work on time, and talent. I am a huge fan of his framework as well.)

So let’s reverse-engineer this.

In what ways have you proven to be each of these things? What specific examples from the past can you pull to demonstrate this? Do you always hit deadline? What do you do to make sure you deliver things on time? Have you ever had to learn something super fast? How did you do it? When have you pushed for something new or taken the lead without being asked to do so on a project or job?

If you aren’t one or any of these things, how can you make yourself become more timely, learn faster, or take more initiative? Luckily, there are lots of resources out there that will help you with time management, productivity, study more efficiently, take better notes, improve memory recall, etc. Take inventory of your strengths and weaknesses and invest effort into self-improvement. It will make you invaluable.

I started this endeavor with barely any solid connections in this new field. How did I start building my network? Learn about that in part 2 …

Part 2: Making Connections in a New Field

Part 3: Interview Prep

Part 4: Staying Sane During a Job Hunt