After 13 years of working, I’ve finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up. I’m a UX Designer at Airbnb, but it took me a long time to figure that out. This blog post is a summary of my experience finding and moving into my dream career. I hope this information will help you to find the career you want.
What it’s like to be a designer
UX Designers build useful and delightful products by solving real user problems. Here is an example of a typical project I’ve worked on recently. Last week I met with our anti-discrimination team for a two-day workshop to figure out how to combat discrimination on Airbnb. We met in a bright meeting room with baked goods and lots of coffee. The designer on the anti-discrimination team kicked off by defining the problems we needed to solve. A researcher and data scientist walked through data validating the problems where real. We spent the day brainstorming solutions and listing our assumptions. At the end of the day we had a prioritized list of projects we could potentially build over the next quarter. As a follow up to the workshop myself and a few other designers spent two days designing the solutions we had identified in the workshop. We started with low fidelity sketches of each solution. After many discussions to flesh out the sketches we created digital high fidelity versions of each solution so we could share with stakeholders for feedback.
Why I failed in my first career
I find this job interesting because I enjoy diagnosing complex problems but my job wasn’t always so engaging. I spent the first 13 years of my career working in the film business. I dreamt of being a movie Producer but I got stuck being an Assistant. I remember a typical day on the set of House Of Cards. I would catch a ride to the office with Kevin Spacey, his dog, assistant and security guard. I liked to sit in the back of the SUV listing to audio books like The Power of Habit or The Lean Startup. I’d usually take an adderall once I was in the car then speed the audiobook up 3 x so I could get through it really fast. I read a ton in that car, and I took way too much adderall 🙄. We’d arrive at the production studio, park outside Kevin’s trailer and spend a day filming. I’d alternate between running around on set and sitting in the trailer on my computer chain smoking. This was my life for years. The settings would often change, I’d be sitting on my computer looking over the French Alps covered in snow. Or I’d be in Africa doing emails while looking over the Savanah. But the work stayed the same for way too long.
I was having a lot of fun which distracted me from the fact that I was no achieving my goal. I had started working in the film business because I wanted to be a Producer but after 5 years I was still an Assistant. It took another 5 years before I plucked up the courage to quit the film business, take a year off and re-evaluate my life. I had a long hard think about what I wanted the next 10 years of my life to look like and I realized I was happiest when I was creating something. I’d always loved making movies or writing stories which is why I wanted to be a movie Producer. But I had never actually defined what it meant to be a Producer. I’d spent years trying to become something without really knowing what that thing was. That’s why I had not achieved my goal despite working hard for many years.
Learning from my first failure
After 8 years I didn’t have the strength to keep trying to be a Producer. I decided to put myself in an environment where I could learn and figure out what career I wanted next. I chose to work at Airbnb to surround myself with people who where smarter than me. I assumed that Airbnb had a lot of smart employees because the company had grown so fast. Luckily I was right.
I found myself surrounded by 24-year-old Harvard dropouts and startup founders. I felt very unimpressive but it drove me to work really hard. My team grew from 50 to 300 people and I learnt a ton as we grew the Experiences business 20x in the first year. I learnt how to create and execute rigorous business plans, set measurable goals and use data to make decisions. After 10 months I began to grow restless, in my role as an Executive Assistant my learning started to plateau and I I hadn’t taken the time to figure out what role I wanted next. I knew from my past 10 years in the film business that if I didn’t figure out what I wanted, my career would stagnate. I began meeting colleagues to figure out if anyone had a role I found interesting. I met researchers for coffee and asked what their typical day looked like. I spent time shadowing product managers and learning to code. I tested out working on projects with the operations team and experimented with designing a website. I listed out the pros and cons of each job, what was I interested in and what was I good at? Gradually I realized UX Design was the best fit. I asked a friend to coach me through designing a digital alarm clock. I wanted to test my assumptions about the role and make sure I actually enjoyed doing the work. It turns out I loved it!
Now that I had figured out what I wanted to be I knew I needed to get really specific and understand what it meant to be a UX Designer. What exactly where the skills and experience Designers needed? I looked at job descriptions, did online research and met design managers then gathered all the information into this spreadsheet. I now had a very detailed list of all the things I needed to learn in order to get a job as a UX Designer.
Learning to be a designer
I spent the next year coming into the office at 5am to work on side projects. I started out copying existing designs so I could learn the tools. Next I started designing features in existing apps. Each week I would meet with a designer on my team for a mentor session. These meetings helped me figure out how to get better and how to learn faster. I would ask for feedback on my work, where did I need to improve? I’d also ask for feedback on my plan to become a designer, where there any skills or experience I wasn’t learning which would be critical to getting hired? The plan I put together at the beginning of the year looked totally different at the end of the year. It took a lot of trial and error to figure out exactly what I needed to learn. My goal by the end of the year was to ship one of my designs in the Airbnb app. My 18-month goal was also very specific, I needed to be as good as the best graduates coming out of university with UX Design degrees.
It was tough balancing my full-time job with learning design. Each morning I’d arrive at the office 4 hours before most of my colleagues. The office lights don’t come on that early so I’d sit in the dark working on side projects. I needed that morning time because my work day was pretty busy and it was hard to focus on projects. I’d steal bits of time through the day which meant I usually stayed in the office until 7pm finishing my assistant job. This wasn’t sustainable, I had sacrificed balance and all I did was work and sleep.
2 months ago all the hard work paid off and I officially started as a designer! The journey does not stop here. Through this journey I’ve realized I’m never really satisfied once I achieve a goal. I always get excited about learning something new and taking on bigger challenges so I’ll have to make sure I continue to learn and grow in this design role.