How I left software engineering to become a product designer in a year

My first-hand experience switching careers as a college senior

March 17, 2019

10 mins

All of us chase the “perfect job” — one that encompasses our special checklist of hand-chosen attributes. Some of us spend years in trial and error periods; some of us figure it out earlier. Thankfully, I’m one of the “lucky” ones. While I can’t say it was an easy journey, I wholeheartedly know jumping into design was the right move for me. For anyone on their own path of discovery, I hope my story offers reassurance with the unknown ahead. I know reading this a year ago would’ve prevented me from feeling alone in my situation and stopped me from stress-eating so many darn Hot Cheetos.

First things first, why the switch?

“What do I want to do with my life?”

I was positive I held the answer to this age-old question coming into college. As a seventeen year-old, I thought all the signs were there: I had a ton of fun developing my own websites and apps and even tinkered with electronics in high school. Learning how to harness the capabilities of digital technologies was captivating to me, bearing the same addictive splendor of watching Vine compilations or following animal celebrities on Instagram. I was convinced software engineering was the perfect match in discipline, and I didn’t have any reason to think otherwise.

Fast forward halfway into my time at Georgia Tech, I wasn’t so sure anymore. Don’t get me wrong — I thoroughly enjoyed my curriculum in university and had amazing internship experiences at this point.

As an Explorer intern at Microsoft, I’ll never forget participating in my first stand-up meetings, pushing my lines of TypeScript and C# to the immense codebase, or learning how millions of people had seen the features I developed my first summer out of college. On top of all this, I got to see Adam Levine perform live ten feet away from my face during the Intern Signature Event and attend my first music festival. I had the best summer of my life at that point.

At nineteen, fresh out of sophomore year, I was blessed with the opportunity to work at Apple’s Infinite Loop campus in sunny Cupertino. Through many of the training workshops and executive speaker series, I had an unforgettable time soaking in all I wanted to know about mobile development and the operations behind the internal workings of the technology powerhouse. In the end, I was even able to present my project to the Vice President of Wireless Technologies in a personal one-to-one meeting.

Safe to say, it wasn’t the nature of my work nor lack of opportunities presented.

When I got back to school, I connected the dots. I started reminiscing on memorable moments back when I was first learning how to program. What I truly missed, as a software engineer in the industry, was the creative freedom and personal connections with others through my projects. My ultimate revelation was that I enjoyed code more as a means of execution: programming was enjoyable because of the way it allowed me to bring my ideas to life. The first time I saw lines of code turn to pixels on the screen felt like magic. And I’ll never forget how my eleventh-grade Digital Electronics teacher, who I personally invited to attend my Girls Who Code graduation, gleamed as she toyed around with my final project.

However, I continued to let these hesitations sit and put my feelings on hold. I decided to pursue another internship to give software engineering “one last try” — this time at a startup called DoorDash. Although I was brought on as a KP Engineering Fellow, I asked to be put on design work on top of my intern projects. Seeing that my major had a hint of design studies on top of my eagerness to learn, my manager was able put me onboard. There, I got a behind-the-scenes sneak peek into what product design really entailed.

Long story short, I was enamored. I found a fit that blended my desire to stay within the technology industry, yet allowed me to flourish without boundaries in an artistic sense. I loved the entire realm of creative problem-solving, which pieced together business challenges with visual experiences. Involving the user through every stage of the process brought a human component to projects that made me more deeply connected to my work, and I was so much more naturally drawn to crafting designs as opposed to implementing them. My gut incessantly nudged me telling me it was the better fit.

The rest has been history.

The grind

Making the switch was as equally exhilarating as it was scary. I knew that if I genuinely wanted to transition into becoming a product designer, I needed the expertise and work experience to prove that I deserved it. I felt so behind, and I knew that the only way to “catch up” was to spend my time valuably. I’d surely be competing with other students from art schools who had more experience than I did — what was I going to do to stand out?

I proceeded to learn as much as I could. I read every design-centric Medium article I could find, wrapping my head around fundamental principles and learning how to craft a portfolio of quality work. I stalked websites of designers I admired and followed every design podcast series I could find. I collected books, too — one of my favorite all-time reads is the first edition of The Great Discontent gifted to me by my friend Stephen. I watched countless documentaries, even binging the Abstract series on Netflix in 2 days.

Below are a couple of links I found incredibly helpful:

Blogs

Abduzeedo, Awwwards, Creative Bloq, Fast Co. Design, Internet Curated, InVision Blog, Nicely Done, UI Movement, UltraLinx, UX Magazine, Maeda.pm, Smashing Magazine, Webdesigner Depot

Books

Envisioning Information, Solving Product Design Exercises: Questions & Answers, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, The Design of Everyday Things, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Resources

Designer Mill, Freebiesbug, Graphic Burger, Hello Many, Material Design Tools, Origami UI, Sketch App Resources, Site Inspire, UI8

Because of my disadvantageous short-term memory, I kept all of these lessons in a red Moleskin gifted to me by my former DoorDash manager. To this day, I still keep my notes in there, and it’s been fun to see the empty pages turn into sheets of ink-filled progress. Knowledge only remains words on paper until applied, so I knew I had to put myself to work. For me, it was essential to me to have a game-plan moving forward (I’m a Virgo to a T).

Advice is most valuable when you take action. You can learn as much as you can, but it won’t matter if you don’t apply the lessons and execute.

In order to even be considered for any opportunities, I knew I needed a portfolio. My approach was cyclical:

  1. Absorb.
  2. Apply.
  3. Get feedback.

On top of showing the work I did from my DoorDash internship, I dug up past work from former hackathons and courses to put in my portfolio as I didn’t have enough time to dedicate to new initiatives. If you’re lacking projects of your own, advice I’ve gotten in the past is to improve or redesign existing products or features, reach out to local non-profits, conduct freelance work, or become the lead designer on the applications you build yourself.

I then reached out to individuals on LinkedIn around the time the mentorship feature was shipping out, as well as those on Twitter who were willing to offer a hand to junior designers. From every hour-long call I hopped on, email I received, and video chat scheduled, I kept refining my portfolio from the feedback people were sharing. I must’ve spoken with 2–3 people every week over the course of months.

If you don’t already know, design requires a tough skin. It’s important to be openly receptive to critique, yet critical enough to know which comments are valuable enough to take action on. What one person might think is the best way might intersect with your own preference, and it’s imperative to maintain grit to form your own decisions as a designer as well.

Additionally, your portfolio is ultimately the story you craft for yourself; the way people interpret the way you work as a designer is determined by how you frame your approach and explain the decisions behind them. I can’t stress enough how imperative it is to clearly articulate each stage of your process and your intentions behind the work.

Interviewee to intern

I might’ve left out an important detail concerning the timing of my career switch — it was during my fall exchange semester at Denmark (a whopping eight hours ahead of the Bay Area). It was exciting to have finally gotten interview slots, but the time zone difference was not easy to say the least.

One weekend, I was sent over a last-minute design assignment for an opportunity I really wanted and had to miss out on a trip I planned early on with other exchange students. In another instance, I made it to the final round for a shiny design role, but was unqualified to be flown out due to my international presence. As an alternative, I ended up spending four hours on Google Hangouts to recreate the on-site experience over video call. I didn’t eat dinner until 10pm that night and stuffed as many Oreos as I could during those 5-minute breaks to keep me going.

Starting out as a novice was especially tough when it came to interviews since this very skill depends heavily on practice. Not to mention, months of rejections and countless applications really does test your perseverance and confidence in your abilities.

In the end, I’m so grateful that I ended up with internship offers post-graduation with amazing companies that broadened my horizon of design.

Looking ahead

To be frank, 2018 was in many regards very difficult for me personally. I conducted video interviews shortly after losing my father to cancer, resuming my job hunt as if my life hadn’t just flipped for the long haul. I worried about failing my exchange semester abroad when I abruptly returned to the U.S. to make arrangements for and attend my dad’s funeral. I hopped from internship to internship with no permanent plans ahead, while hearing about the latest job offer acceptances to amazing companies on social media all year-round. I was told by certain individuals to “stick to engineering” because it’d be “better for me in the long run.” Moving from city to city every few months truly got tiring; the toll it took on my physical and mental health started showing during my second internship. However, I’m grateful for all of the lessons these experiences taught me; it really forced myself to fight for my aspirations.

There’s no question that it’s easier for me to write this when I’m on the other side of the picket fence: success takes time (and lots and lots of mistakes). While I acknowledge there was privilege involved in certain aspects of my path, I truly believe that anyone can play a vital role in shaping their own futures — as long as they are willing to overcome the hardships that come.

As for my next steps, I’m thrilled to share I’ll be joining the MongoDB product design team! I’m so excited to be committing to a company that houses talented multidisciplinary creatives and embeds a strong engineering culture. My streak of interning comes to its imminent conclusion, but I am so grateful for each and every experience to get to where I am now.

Quite honestly, I still have no idea what I’m doing or how it all worked out, but I’m happy I jumped head-first into the deep end. What I do know is that patience, tenacity, and consistency were the key ingredients (sprinkled in with some existential crises and long nights). I truly believe there’s no linear identical journey for everyone. If there’s anything I can impart, it’d be to put in the work, trust the process, and let everything else follow.

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