My journey to finding the true passion for DESIGN— from nothing, all the way to Facebook
For the past year, it feels like I’ve learned and accomplished a lot. However, there’s so much more to do. But before thinking about any of that, I thought it’s worth it to reflect back on my past.
Over the Summer, I worked at Facebook as a Product Design Intern. During that time, I volunteered a couple times to be on the panel for a group of high school students who visited the Facebook office. There, a young girl asked me a question that made me smile before I answered her question. She asked, “What kind of degree in university do I need to get in order to work at companies like Facebook?”
I smiled not because it was a strange or a naive question. I only smiled because I could remember my own past experiences flashing by like movie snapshots. How DID I end up here? All of a sudden, everything felt like a dream. But at the same time, I curled up my fingers to make a fist of victory. I did it, I’m finally here.
Here is my story. It’s a one-year long story and I’d say, life is worth designing for and working hard armed with passion and action is truly rewarding.
Rocky Road to Design
From Mechanical Engineering major to Psychology major
Fortunately, some people know exactly what they want to become when they enter college. For example, I’ve seen my close friend who wanted to be a Software Engineer when he first came for his freshmen year of college. So, he enrolled in Computer Science, took that for 4 years and got a job.
For me, it was different, way different.
Throughout high school, I loved Math and Science (typical Asian gig). I got good grades and people around me kept telling me that I would become an awesome Engineer one day. On top of that, I didn’t really know what kind of jobs were out there in the real world. Most importantly, I didn’t know what I was truly PASSIONATE about — simply because I was way too young, naive and inexperienced with life in general. So, I enrolled in whatever I felt like would make sense (considering my grades in high school) which was Mechanical Engineering and hoped for the best. I thought it would be as simple as that.
As it turned out, after two years of Mechanical Engineering, I discovered that it wasn’t the right fit for me. Long story short, I didn’t really enjoy classes or solving pages and pages of Math or Physics problems. Therefore, I decided to take some time off to explore different things. Then, I started to read a lot of books, watched inspiring movies and also, met a lot of people from diverse backgrounds (especially while I was in the army). Gradually over time, I realized that there were many things that I was interested in which I personally think was fortunate. Amongst them, I discovered that I was interested in learning about people’s emotions and behaviors. Therefore, I decided to switch my major to Psychology.
But guess what? Switching major wasn’t easy at first because many people who loved me said no, I shouldn’t.
When I told my parents that I wanted to switch my major, they really disliked it and my friends showed sympathy. They said that there will be fewer jobs for Psychology majors when I graduate and that discarding an Engineering major is unwise. To be honest, what they said and worried were completely understandable — a lot of Asians who wished to stay and work in the U.S preferred to have Engineering-related degrees.
However, I wanted to try learning what I felt I was INTERESTED in, not because there are more jobs out there or it’s more stable. Actually, I think that was the moment that sparked the life in me.
But of course, this was just the start of my whole new journey.
To sum up my transition into Psychology life, I really loved it. Studying Psychology taught me a lot of interesting aspects about people. I had so much fun with it and I was enjoying the every moment of my college life. The grades went up and became more confident about myself. Most importantly, I felt like I was truly learning something.
One more extremely important lesson I learned about myself was that if I truly feel PASSIONATE about something, I excel at learning, achieving and being fascinated about it.
Having that “I can do it!” mental strength has shown me a way to overcome challenges and to discover ways to achieve my goals.
From Psychology grad to MS in HCI
Shortly after I graduated from college, I had to make a decision: get a job or study something more. Obviously, I was just starting to get my engine going — it was a little early to get a job for me. So, I explored at some of the directions that I could go to with my Psychology degree. I thought about aiming for Ph.D in Psychology or even Law School. However, I felt like those two options weren’t really the right fit for me.
For those few months, I was confused and worried. I thought I found something that I really liked to study but it did really seem like a dead end. However, I tried many things, hoping that I would find something that I would feel passionate about. But then, magic happened.
Luckily, I discovered the HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) program through a professor at my college when he came to my country to give lectures. He sat down with me and said that one of his pupil who graduated from Psychology went to study something called HCI and now, got a job at Amazon as a UX Designer. At first, Amazon sounded cool. But next, I was like, “what the heck is HCI and UX?”
That night, I came back home and booted up my laptop. I went on Google and began searching for HCI and UX. Everything I was reading off the screen was completely new to me. But I still remember that night. I just couldn’t stop searching for information. As I was searching, I was nodding my head with glaring eyes and gradual confirmation — this was it, I’ve finally found what I wanted to study more. (A little too early but I was like, “I want to become a UX Designer!”)
What I loved most about HCI was that it’s a combination of Computer Science, Design, Psychology and many other academic disciplines. This meant that I could get into Tech with the help of my Psychology background. And I learned through surfing the web that a few of the HCI grads do have a Psychology degree and that they end up going to work at Tech companies as some kind of DESIGNERS (or researchers). Although I didn’t know many things back then, I loved the idea of solving problems and inventing new things at the very forefront of the advancement in technology.
But first, I needed to know how I could get accepted to the MS in HCI programs. It seemed like the perfect stepping stone to my journey back into the U.S and to the Tech industry. Also, it was a perfect direction to go with my background.
After that week, I began to research on the application requirements. There were a few things such as GRE, TOEFL, Portfolio website, Statement or Purpose Essays and more. Everything else seemed doable except one thing: a portfolio website. Because I graduated with a Psychology degree, there was no way that I could have anything close to a “portfolio.” And of course, I didn’t even have any design-related skills or coding skills either. All I could do is to stare at some other people’s websites and be amazed at them.
Well, some schools didn’t require a non-design major applicants to have a portfolio website to apply which was a good news for me. However, realizing that there would be a lot of similar applicants like me, I wanted to be seen more competitive than the others. So, I didn’t really think about applying without it. But I didn’t know where to start. There were just too many things to learn in front of me such as the design tools, front-end development and other related things about the Tech industry in general.
Although it was stressful and daunting to commit time into learning new things without having any guarantee, I decided to think positively. I stood up and padded myself on the back, “You can do it Geunbae. Let’s get started!”
Yes, it was mountains over mountains…I wish there were more than 24 hours in one day. But thankfully, it was a lot of fun — I learned things quickly and it was a perfect fit for me. I could easily stay up late at night to design things, code up my newbie-looking portfolio with HTML/CSS/JS that I started to learn by myself and also spent countless amount of time reading articles about UI/UX and the tech industry. Furthermore, I began to attend several design meet-ups, conferences and looked for mentorships whenever I had the chance. Those few months before the application deadline, time went by very quickly but every day was rewarding and enjoyable. I was learning so many things on a daily basis — it was like sponge absorbing water.
Between the time that I discovered HCI and applied for the MS in HCI program, I would say that I did become a little more familiar with design — the process, various terminologies and even code. I continuously self-taught some of the popular design tools, learned front-end development and made a scrapbook of some of the things that I needed to learn further. There were two things that whip-lashed me into pulling frequency all-nighters at my room: one, I was super enthusiastic about what I was learning and two, I wanted to be at a similar level as those who graduated with a design degree.
Frankly, I never imagined myself not being able to get accepted to any of the HCI programs that I applied to. What I worried about the most was the life during the program, the internship and the full-time job. I never wanted to seen less than my peers who came from a design background and just like everyone else, of course, I would want to land a job at a very good company. And because I was so eager to learn and the pace of my learning was quick, I started to become a little confident at a time. But I was lucky. What if I discovered that design wasn’t my passion or that I was completely lacking the eyes or skills to pull it off?
Anyways, I kept on looking ahead, viewing other current HCI students or full-time designers’ profiles on LinkedIn and their portfolio website. To be honest, this helped me to stay motivated and has given me a lot of rich information about what I should do once I get into the program. Plus, continuously reading a lot of articles about design helped.
Reflecting back, my passion for design as well as the worries that I had about starting late probably contributed equally to pushing me to late night studies the most. But to be honest, that self-awareness and motivation helped me all the way up to receiving admissions from several MS in HCI programs.
I was happy that my hard work paid off. Now that I was back in the U.S, looking to study with some of the best and brightest, I was even more pumped up. How do I make the best of my time? How do I land the best internship, the full-time job? There was way more to accomplish but thankfully, I was given the opportunity to start.
Focus, Focus and Focus
At my MS in HCI @ Georgia Tech
Just before joining school, I had a number of things to do on my list. First of all, I wanted to research on some of the existing design roles as well as the companies that offered those specific roles. And after that, I went on to LinkedIn and started to look at the profiles of some of the designers that captured my attention which wasn’t new for me, it was as habit of mine. I tried to look at what they did, what tools they knew, took a deep dive at their portfolio website and many more other things that could inspire me. Every day, I was motivated to learn more and it was endlessly fascinating.
Next, I started to create my own curated list of job openings (companies that interest me, when their roles would open etc), thought about how to structure my portfolio website and plus, many things that I need to do in the near future like Dribbble or writing articles about my experiences. All of this helped me to prioritize some of the things that I needed to focus on even before I entered school too.
One of the most important thing that I discovered was that some companies hired very early like in September or October. But realistically, first-year MS-HCI students just cannot have anything on their portfolio website and I knew some people don’t even have a website by then. So I was like, “How can I close this gap? How can I increase my chances? How can I have something that I can at least have a shot with?”
At school, I looked for project-based courses that would get me pieces on my portfolio website. And I even started to do some side projects on my own or with a group of people I knew in addition to school work. But there was more. I started to get into Dribbble to show the quality of my visual design skills and revamped my whole portfolio website and updated it every single week. I even coded up from scratch to show my front-end development skills. Also, that’s when I started to write about my experiences because it helped me to get better at structuring my own thoughts as well as to get some exposure to my ideas in public. All of this was done with less amount of sleep. But every day felt like a dream already. Before going to bed, I used to imagine myself working at the best company, being the most passionate designer and to have a happy family (my wife was pregnant at the time and I was even more motivated and hungry to achieve that).
When my peers were hanging out together during the weekends, starting to get used to grad school life and focusing on just the school work, I had to be different. I studied harder, focused on school projects, practiced design skills and learned to code. In addition to that, I wasn’t lazy on staying updated with the internship opportunities, stalking people on LinkedIn (getting inspired, asking for mentorship, networking etc) and getting things ready for internship applications such as my portfolio website. At the very early start of the semester, I began structuring my portfolio website so that all I needed to do was to put content in it for my projects whenever each step of the process was finished.
Oh, my peers knew that I was hungry to learn and to land an internship. I’ve seen many coming into my weekly updated website. Some were skeptical about my approach, some commented with bitterness, some didn’t care whatever I was doing and some were motivated by me. However, I didn’t really care. All I wanted was to get the most out of the time I had, apply for it and get it. As mentioned, having a pregnant wife was a spice to my game. I stood up late at night to study and promised to my wife that I will make her proud. I didn’t want to leave any feeling of regret.
Getting an internship
Every day, I was constantly learning more and more inside the class as well as outside of class. Of course, my main focus was class projects which ended up being listed on my portfolio website. However, as mentioned, I also did other things like putting up some things on Dribbble, writing articles on Medium and searching for internships. Lack of sleep and long hours in front of my laptop was my daily routine. Time management and work-load management were extremely important to me.
Going into Glassdoor, Indeed and LinkedIn Jobs were my daily activities. Whenever I felt like I was ready to apply at a company that I was interested in (although no one is ever feeling that they are ready), I started to apply as early as possible with my premature portfolio and resume. Unfortunately, at first, it was too early to apply — I tasted some bittersweetness. But I did learn my lessons and getting some rejection letters were my extra motivation to polishing my package even more.
The pace of my learnings and the skills that I developed kept evolving. It was at a fast rate only because I was always passionate to learn things. Some of the first years who came into the HCI program at my school ask me if I really graduated with a Psychology degree and had no other prior exposure to design. Well, there’s still a long way to go, lots of things to learn but damn, that felt good. Anyways back then too, some of my peers were asking me the same question and I could tell, some of them were starting to show some respect to my designs. I began to have some fun with my own little creations too. And I could confidently say to my peers who I did projects together that I want to design.
Around early November, I was starting to get some emails about interviews from several companies that I applied to. Oh my god! I was so happy. Luckily, because I kept on updating my portfolio website every single week, I was able to show whatever I had at the time the interviews happened. Although the projects weren’t finished, I could talk about a few things about my projects including my Dribbble projects, hack-a-thon projects (yes, I actively went to those too!) as well as my side projects. To be honest, I felt like those really showed my passion and my enthusiasm. I hoped the companies would appreciate that and I think they did because I was given offers to join their companies.
And I decided to join Facebook, one of the companies that I dreamed of. I still remember myself running around the hall screaming and crying. It was a moment that all the hard work, the all nighters that I pulled through every day had paid off. I had always told my wife and the rest of my family that I would make them proud. Yay, I did it. But it was again, another start to my journey. Shortly after the congratulations and the celebrations, there was another layer of motivation and worries on top of me. There were even more things to do but at least, I had secured the internship, not just internship. The Facebook internship.
My Internship at Facebook
Working at Facebook was a dream come true. Now, I became a little bit more confident and more knowledgable about sharing my experiences with other people who contact me through LinkedIn and Facebook asking me about my experience. Also, it’s extremely fun to connect with other students and young designers like me.
Last Summer, I spent one of the most amazing summers working on cool projects that were completely different from school. Although the work was super challenging with so many things to consume and execute, people around me were very supportive and helpful. There were so many talented and experienced people that I got to learn from. My intern manager was one of the most influential people throughout my internship that guided me very well to my successful ending. He was the best mentor I’ve had so far and I truly thank him for that.
For three months, I managed to complete five projects, one of which I had to commit code. All the projects I worked on was interesting problems to solve with high potential impact. Every week, day, hour, I learned and developed not only my skills but also how I should work with other people. On a weekly basis, I went into design crits to present my work and get feedback, not being shy about presentations or to engage in some harsh conversations. I worked very closely with research, content strategy and engineering whenever I had the chance.
Actually, five days before my internship, my baby boy was born and it was really tough to leave him and my wife. And for the almost the entire Summer, I wasn’t able to see them. My wife really wanted to have a blast at Facebook and she said not to worry about the baby. “Just focus on doing your best and have fun,” she said. I didn’t want to let my family down, especially myself down.
At the end, I was really fortunate to receive a return offer from Facebook. People in my team said I did a great job and reflecting back, I feel like I was able to accomplish a lot of things within a short amount of time. There were things that I wish I could have done more but I’m sure I’ll be able to make up to them once I join back Facebook next year.
I don’t know what will happen with my journey after graduation and after I join Facebook. So far, it’s been like a dream. However, behind the scenes, I worked really hard to get here. I stood up late at night studying when others were sleeping. I spared my free time for my family and for my future goals when others spent for themselves entertaining and relaxing. And I tried my best at doing the things I felt I truly was feeling passionate.
There are so many things to learn and so many people that are talented. Later in the future, I want to be those people who are knowledgeable at what they do best. I wish to inspire others who aim to be great designers. And most importantly, I want to be able to stay passionate about my work.
Having a family that loves me and supports me really helps in all that.
I hear people talking about the word, “passion” every now and then. Frankly, I talk about it many times too and I believe I mentioned it quite a few times in my writing. Passion is what drove me all the way here throughout my journey so far. I believe it will be very important to hold on to it as long as I can, possibly until the day I die.
Passion is a strong word but people sometimes mistakenly use it as any other words. Without actually taking the action or effort to achieve the goals, passion is nothing but a bare shell.
Thanks for reading.