How To Land A UX Design Job At A Lucrative Silicon Valley Tech Company
Stephanie Swanbeck stashed this in UI/UX + Recruiting
Who am I, and why should you care what I have to say?
My name is Stephanie Swanbeck, and I have been a design recruiter at LinkedIn, Houzz, SurveyMonkey, and Google. I know the ins and outs of the design organizations at each of those companies, as well as competitive insight into Facebook, Apple, and other hot tech companies. I have interviewed thousands upon thousands of candidates, and looked at portfolios until my eyes bled. Something that I gathered during my time as a design recruiter is that the process seems confusing for candidates. There seems to be games that the company plays, and games that the candidate plays, and sometimes it all gets very messy. If you’re looking to work in UX at a hot tech company in Silicon Valley, I’m your girl. I’m here to make sure you don’t get burned, and that you have every opportunity to get the job. Of course, I cannot make any guarantees that you will get the job, so don’t hold me to that. However, I can ensure that you will greatly improve your chances by following this advice.
Step 1: LinkedIn profile + portfolio + cover letter + resume
The interview process starts long before you talk to anyone at a given company. Recruiters have very good social stalking skills, so chances are they’ve found your Facebook page, Twitter account, LinkedIn, Dribbble, Behance, and other accounts before they even reach out to you. This is why it is important to keep all social media accounts professional and up to date. If you can’t commit to posting on a social media site at least once per week, you should delete that account. Nothing worse than an out of date account. The exception to this would be LinkedIn, where we would not expect you to post weekly. However, it couldn’t hurt to join various LinkedIn Groups that relate to your profession, and become active in those groups. Recruiters are very active on LinkedIn, and it is where they find the vast majority of their candidates. They would love to see you involved in UX groups on LinkedIn, and if you put links to your portfolios on your LinkedIn account, you may have literally just saved your recruiter hours of work. They will love you for it.
On that same note, please please please make sure that your portfolio is up to date. I know that you probably already have a fulltime job and it seems impossible to find the time to update your portfolio, but it is very important that you do. Many companies will immediately reject a candidate if they don’t have a portfolio. Trust me, I speak from experience. Also, don’t be sneaky. If you are presenting material that you worked on with a team, be sure to be transparent about the parts that you worked on, rather than claiming you did the whole thing yourself. What happens when designers lie is they get hired for the wrong role, and then fired because it isn’t working out. I don’t want to see that happen to you, so please always be up front and honest with your recruiter and the other people you are interviewing with.
Who reads cover letters? Pretty much nobody. Cover letters are a great opportunity to showcase your skills and abilities, but unfortunately nobody really reads them because they are usually too lengthy. If you want a chance of your recruiter reading your cover letter, keep it short and sweet. You can even list your skills in bullet point format for easy reading.
Your resume is very important. It’s a great way for the recruiter and other people interviewing you to see where you’ve worked, and what you’ve worked on. If you have gaps in your resume, you have two choices. You can either list your employment in month/year format, or just year format. Neither way is correct or incorrect, but you may be asked questions about the gap either way. Be prepared to respond with a composed answer.
Your job as an interviewee is to impress both the recruiter, and the other UX professionals at the company. The recruiter will be most interested in your portfolio and LinkedIn profile, whereas the UX professionals will be most interested in your resume, portfolio, and design challenge (which I’ll mention in more detail later).
Step 2: Phone Interview with Recruiter
The phone interview with the recruiter tends to be the very first step in the interview process. Some recruiters are friendly and bubbly, whereas others play hardball. Either way, they are looking for the same information. Recruiters want to help figure out if you would need to relocate for the job, how soon your first day could be, if you have other offers on the table, etc. Think of recruiters as your temporary best friend who is trying to work out all of the details for you. It’s very important to be kind to your recruiter, since they are your representative at the company. Also, just treat everyone well. If you try to play mind games or are rude to people along the way, you’re going to end up in the reject pile.
Step 3: Phone Interview with Designer
Some companies do this step, some don’t. Some companies feel more comfortable giving a candidate an opportunity to “talk shop” with someone before they commit to bringing the candidate in for an onsite interview. The sad fact is that far too many recruiters don’t really study what they’re recruiting for, so their technical conversations with candidates are pretty much non-existent. I always took it upon myself to learn as much about design as I could, so that I could talk shop with candidates. But I digress.
Step 4: Design Challenge
If you’ve made it this far in the interview process, it is highly likely that the company likes your sense of design and esthetics. However, they may still be curious what you esthetic would look like for their company/brand, or may want to know more about your design process. Hence, the design challenge was born. Don’t take it as an insult if you are given a design challenge. It’s actually a very good thing, because it means they want to see more of your work.
Step 5: Onsite Interview with Team
If you’ve made it this far, the team must be pretty excited about you. But they’re not going to show it. In fact, they may grill you pretty hard. If they do, just take comfort in the fact that you’ve already made it further in the interview process than most do. Answer all of the questions that interviewers ask you, but come up with questions of your own as well. It makes you appear more knowledgeable, engaged, and interested in the opportunity. You can ask the interviewer about how long they’ve been at the company, what their day to day looks like, what are the qualities of some of the most successful designers at that company, etc. Get creative with your questions.
Step 6: Meeting with the Founder/CEO
This step obviously depends on the size of the company. I once worked at a startup where the CEO/Founder met with every candidate who interviewed onsite. I also worked at large companies, where the company was far too large for the CEO to meet with candidates. Don’t feel disappointed if this step doesn’t happen, since it doesn’t happen everywhere. However, if you do meet the CEO/Founder, you have every right to do a happy dance after you leave the interview. This step means that everyone liked you so much that they’re having the CEO make a final decision of if he could picture you working at his company. But this still doesn’t mean that you have the job.
Step 7: Hiring Committee
After all of the interviews have been completed, Hiring Committee takes place so that the company can decide if they would like to move forward with an offer or not. Since design is such a subjective thing, there is usually a lot of debate and disagreement about candidates’ work. Even if you get rejected, know that there could have been lots of people who liked your work, even though the outcome was a rejection.
Step 8: Reject/Offer
After Hiring Committee, there are usually only 2 possible outcomes -- an offer is extended, or a rejection is issued. How can you reduce your chances of being rejected? See the tips below.
How To Be Different, and Bring It Home
Personal branding. On the few occurrences when I did see a candidate who excelled at personal branding, I was impressed. They had created their own logo, core beliefs, color scheme, etc. It really made them stand out, and easier to remember. (Remember, recruiters see thousands of portfolios, so it’s important to find a way to stand out).
Don’t be weird. Don’t bring your pet bunny to your interview. Don’t come to the interview dressed in Victorian clothes. Don’t eat 10 protein bars during your interview. I know this sounds like common sense, but you wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen. Please be normal. Thanks.
Gratitude. This is something I didn’t see much of either. In my years of recruiting, probably only 4 times did a candidate send a thank you note to me, their interviewers, the recruiting coordinator, or anyone else they met with. If you do this, you will stand out. It is polite and creates positive and open lines of communication.
Be polite. Different interviewers have different interviewing styles. Some companies do a good cop, bad cop approach. I don’t agree with it, but it does happen. If you lose your temper, you can pretty much guarantee that you won’t get the job. Be as patient and polite as possible.
Be inquisitive. Are you curious about how your last interview went? Feel free to ask the recruiter. Are you curious when the start date would be, or if there is a company commuter bus? Feel free to ask. However, because recruiters are so busy, it is best to consolidate these questions into one email, rather than one-off emails. I think it’s great to be inquisitive, but don’t overdo it. If a recruiter tells you that they don’t have the results yet from your last interview, believe them. Try to limit follow up with the recruiter to once per week, unless the recruiter initiates it more frequently.
Be patient. The interview process time can vary from company to company. Some startups can move swiftly, taking only 2 weeks total, while larger companies can take up to 4-6 months. I know these numbers can be discouraging, but just be as patient as you possibly can. Most of the time there is nothing that can be done to speed up the process, so just be patient.
Study the area. If you are not originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, do your research before you start interviewing. For example, people at tech companies do not wear suits. Also, you may be riding a bicycle during your lunch break with one of your interviewers. Do the best research you can about the tech scene in Silicon Valley, but feel free to ask your recruiter any lingering questions you have.
Do your homework. Don’t go into the interview without any insight. See if the company has social media accounts and what they’re posting on those accounts. What are they passionate about? Also, look at the LinkedIn profiles of people who are in similar roles at the company to see what their background is like and what they’re interested in. Ask your recruiter for the names of your interviewers before the onsite interview so that you can look them up on LinkedIn. If you can do this, look for things to bond with the interviewerer over. For example, did you both go through Stanford’s Computer Science program? Bring it up in the interview. As a heads up, some companies will not give out the names of the interviewers. This is just a safety precaution to protect their staff, so don’t take it personally. Just view it as a challenge to find out as much other information about the company as you can.
Be yourself. When a company is hiring for a position 50% of what interviewers look for is skillset, and the other 50% is culture fit, so I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. If you are a jerk or in some other way not a culture fit, you will be rejected from the position. Be your authentic self during the interview process so that the recruiter and interviewers can determine if you’d be a good culture fit for the company. On this note, I should probably also mention do your best to be well rested and prepared for the interview. It starts things off on the wrong foot when the interviewee seems exhausted, unprepared, and apathetic about being there. I know, it sounds pretty obvious, but I’ve seen this time and time again, so I feel the need to mention it here.
Give explanations. This is one of the most common areas that designers fail interviews. Commonly, interviewers ask something along the lines of, “Why is the ‘Read More’ button in the bottom right corner?” “Because I like it there” is not a valid answer. You are not designing for yourself, you are designing for the user. Make sure that you understand user experience research, because that is what should be driving your design decisions. Some companies will have designated researchers that you’ll work with, whereas other companies will expect you to do the research yourself. Either way, make sure you understand various research techniques and how to interpret that data. That way instead of your answer being “because I liked it,” you can say, “User research showed that candidates found the ‘Read More’ button more quickly when it was in the bottom right hand corner in comparison to the bottom left hand corner or either upper hand corner.” See how much more knowledgeable and informed that sounds?
Have fun. Interviewing can be very stressful, so it is great when I meet a candidate who is happy, relaxed, and excited to be interviewing there. The interviewers have very stressful schedules, so a good-natured candidate can sometimes even put interviewers in a better mood. That can only help your cause!
Hopefully by following all of this advice, you have greatly increased your odds of getting hired at a hot tech company in Silicon Valley. However, if you do interview for a job and get rejected, not all hope is lost. Sometimes the company just wants someone to take a year to go back to school, build out their portfolio, or do something else to show growth before they interview them again. If you do get rejected by a company, they will probably want you to wait 12-16 months before interviewing again. This is why I have done my best to prepare you for success. Also trust that you will find the right fit. A rejection from one company could be followed by receiving an offer from another company. Design is very subjective, so not every company will agree on someone’s portfolio/resume/LinkedIn profile/etc.
I hope you have enjoyed learning more about how to get hired as a UX professional in Silicon Valley, and I wish you the best of luck!
All the best,
Wow Stephanie, what a fount of great practical advice!!! I'm not a designer but I'm a startup founder who has helped UX designers find jobs (and vice versa), and I'd like to just add a couple of tips:
* You're so right about the cover letter, but I would go further. As an engineering manager, I have literally NEVER seen a cover letter from a candidate -- usually you just get a stack of resumes delivered by recruiting -- and in fact the more progressive orgs no longer will forward them to managers because they very often contain personal information that might contribute to unconscious bias. Just don't bother, there is no downside to skipping the cover letter and never an upside to writing one. There is only one exception: if you are going to write DIRECTLY to the personal email of the hiring manager without a job posting, you must include a cover letter and it better rock!
* Take the time you no longer need to waste on a cover letter, and spend it CAREFULLY READING each job posting. A lot of the better startups include a small but critical test in there... like "Send application with this very specific header" or even "Find the typo in this posting". If you don't pass this test, ALL THE REST of your effort will be wasted because the hiring manager literally will not read your resume. You're in a role where attention to detail counts for a lot, don't blow it on step one!
* The #1 mistake I see junior designers making is a total failure to understand what REAL BUSINESS PROBLEMS they will be called upon to solve. You might think my signup flow sucks and needs to be improved... but guess what, my actual business problem might be how to re-engage old users and not sign up new users. The first designer who just freakin' ASKS what business problems they are going to solve is usually the one who will get the job!
Joyce I definitely have to echo your last point there. It amazes me how many junior designers don't ask what business problem they're solving. Definitely a big no-no to not ask that.
Stephanie, thank you for this thorough and thoughtful post.
The second half -- "How to be different and bring it home" -- seems applicable for any job candidate, not just candidates in design.
Each of your points there -- such as "be yourself" -- could be its own smaller separate post, too.
Great idea Adam! I'll most likely make most of those points follow-up posts.
Personal branding to me is not just about a logo and color scheme.
Everything we do in public social media showcases our personal brand.
So every tweet, Medium post, etc, can reflect and amplify who we are.
The key in a job search is to find a company who wants us for who we are.
I would actually say personal brand goes as far as the clothing we wear, the vocabulary we use, the way we carry ourselves, etc. Maybe I can write a follow up post on personal branding, to help clear that up.
I agree that personal brand contains all of the above. I look forward to your follow up!
The distinction between what's social and professional is gettng more blurry. Using LinkedIn as an example, how much does having – or not having – a profile photo contribute to "unconscious bias"? Unfortunately, using a photo has become so commonplace that it the seems not showing one would be a negative bias for applicants: What are they hiding?
[Edit: I'm not asking for personal reasons. There's government law, business genre, etc., and each has its own particulars. Seems like trying to keep up with the do's and don'ts is its own job.)
Marlene, you're right.
We're almost forced to have a profile photo for that very reason.
And yet, having such a photo, what unconscious biases are we creating? Good question.
Marlene I was just thinking about this yesterday when I was creating my business cards. Should I include a headshot on my card or not? Unfortunately there is no clear answer on this, and it ends up being whatever an individual is comfortable with. I have a profile picture on LinkedIn, but did not put a picture on my business card. I know having my picture on the business card will help people remember me better, but it was hard to cram a picture of my head on the card, so it just started feeling ridiculous.
I think either way is fine. No picture is no problem.