What I’ve learned since graduating from my UX bootcamp.
Written by Autumn Valjien and Abby Barnhart.
The pandemic left many of us without jobs and a lot of time on our hands. It became the perfect time for many of us to go back to school and make a career pivot. For those of us looking to get into tech, UX bootcamps seemed to be the best option. We’re told that as long as you work hard and put effort into it you’ll make it into the field within 3 months of graduating! For me, the bootcamp experience was incredible, and I left feeling full of hope. The time since has been a serious reality check for those of us who graduated during the pandemic.
WHAT I WISH I KNEW BEFORE BOOTCAMP
- If you are considering a boot camp, I’m sure you’ve noticed that they are a dime a dozen. Essentially like McDonald’s, popping up on each street corner, and promising a tempting escape into the world of UX Design. Picture this: 3-month boot camp (no time at all in the real world), you’ve gained a breadth of skills, and BAM! You’re a full-fledged UX designer with the understanding that jobs aplenty will be at your fingertips. $80,000 salary, here I come! Okay let’s snap back to reality, while that can be possible, make sure you do your due diligence on researching each boot camp, the curriculum offered, and who the instructors are. Find this information out not only through each respective institution but use those researching chops by interviewing past graduates. I promise you, they’ll give you the real nitty-gritty over any sponsored YouTube video or representative at that particular boot camp. Plus, you’ll get those networking nerves out of the way for when you do enter the field and that’s what you’ll depend on.
- Many UX industry leaders look down on bootcamps and bootcampers. Initially, I took this personally. It felt kind of unfair. I’m a single parent who doesn’t have the time or the money to do a master’s program. This short program and ISA made something that seemed impossible, possible for me. Then, when I began to look at the information they shared objectively, I realized that they have a lot of really valuable information to share. I learned how to make my portfolio stand out, and what my education gaps might be based on what my program offered. What I also learned was there’s no perfect path to becoming a designer. Even master’s degrees have their problems, so find what works for you and continue learning. Take what you can from what they have to share, and don’t take it personally. Most of them are offering their advice and feedback to help improve the industry.
WHAT I LEARNED AFTER BOOTCAMP
- During your course, you will be flooded with information and it’s easy to get hyper-focused on class projects. When your instructors recommend external resources to take a look at, FOLLOW THROUGH ON THAT. Whether that be books, articles, Udemy courses, use this time to brush up on the depth of design. You will be covering the breadth but post-boot camp, you will experience that “jack of all trades, master of none” feeling. Use this time to truly immerse yourself because once you graduate, the job search and building your portfolio will be your most important to-dos.
- The job market is not what it was advertised to be. For example, at the beginning of Google’s Coursera UX course the intro says something like “The demand is so high, many companies can’t fill their UX roles.” This is totally inaccurate and extremely unfair to advertise to people uprooting their lives to change careers. Wanna know what’s bad UX, being deceived by the platform to make a sale. Shame on them. The last place I applied to had over 1,000 applicants. Only 3 of the 33 people in my Bootcamp have been hired since graduating, and one of them had previously worked at the company they’re at now. Some graduates haven’t even had a single interview, after applying to over 80+ jobs. Seriously, this isn’t an easy industry to break into by any means. If you think you’re a badass designer and this doesn’t apply to you, you’re wrong, sorry bud. An extremely talented friend of mine applied to a Junior level job and was edged out by someone with 5 years of experience. She is a badass designer, but the competition is steep.
- You do not need to know how to code to be a designer. But, because it’s a seller’s market, jobs are asking for more and more from designers, and it is EXTREMELY competitive. Knowing how to code will give you a leg up, but (Edited to add:) UX designers AREN’T engineers, and jobs shouldn’t be asking that from designers. If you don’t want a job where you have to code daily — don’t take it. In the long run, knowing the basics of coding will help you when working with developers, more than anything.
- Companies do not seem to consider Junior Designer roles as entry-level. From my experience, most of them expect 3 years of experience for a Junior Designer role. So what is entry-level? What do people do for the first three years before they qualify as a Junior? Good Question! Mostly, they’re taking on contract projects, working as interns, pursuing a master’s degree, or returning to the field they thought they’d leave forever. Most bootcamp grads aren’t even getting Junior Designer jobs.
- Even if you have a stellar portfolio, if your resume doesn’t have some applicable experience, recruiters won’t even consider you. This means real-world UX experience, but also experience in marketing, as a developer, as a graphic designer, or just in a start-up of some kind. As a bootcamp grad, you live in the Catch 22 Cycle of Hell, where you have to have the experience to get experience. Taking on volunteer unpaid roles is a great way to gain experience to add to your resume after you’ve graduated. Finding free work can be as easy as mentioning to your local guitar shop that you’d love to redesign their website for free, as long as you can list it on your portfolio.
- In this field, networking really is non-negotiable. Getting hired for your first position (and probably most others after) relies heavily on who you know. Companies are using ATS systems to weed out applications and they’re likely not looking at all 1,000+ applicants individually. As a Junior, if you don’t want to be automatically tossed aside, knowing someone who can push you along is key. It’s super scary, but it doesn’t have to suck. Find people you would be friends with IRL and… make friends!
- A lot of UX is advocating for UX. The world needs UX designers, but the world wants visual designers. It’s a sad truth, and you will be met with many companies who say they’re “UI focused”, which often means they don’t want you to do research, they just want you to make it look pretty. Getting a “UI focused” contract can be really tempting because you think “I can put it on my portfolio for more long term job opportunities,” but consider this: do you really want to put a case study on your UX portfolio that has no research to back your design decisions?
- It’s not about quantity, but quality when it comes to job applications, so skip the mass apply technique if you can. Your bootcamp will likely ask you to hit a quota for applications, especially if you did the ISA as I did. Ultimately, what I’ve learned is that you need to find your niche — find a field you’re passionate about, and cater your application materials to match that. Take classes that will help you understand that field better, or focus your networking on people in that field. When you apply for jobs that really feel interesting to you, recruiters and hiring managers can feel that in the way you speak about it. They can tell when you’re phoning it in, or writing generic cover letters.
- Most importantly, for your own mental health, authenticity is key. Trying to be someone else in your cover letters and on your “about me” page can become totally dysphoric and exhausting. (This comes from experience, I briefly tried changing who I was when I wasn’t getting replies for jobs, and it made me totally depressed.) Being authentic doesn’t exactly mean being unapologetic, or not open to change. It just means, if you feel icky saying something, or doing something, then it’s probably not right for you. Don’t apply to companies if their values don’t align with yours, just because they’re hiring. The rejection isn’t any easier. This process is HARD, staying true to yourself will make it easier.
- Don’t beat yourself up over the rejections. You maybe aren’t even ready for a Junior position yet, and that’s OKAY! If this career is right for you, embrace the learning experience, after all, if this is going to be your new career, this is the rest of your life. Going back to your old job to pay the bills is not shameful. It’s not giving up or selling out. We all have to survive and make it work. It’s only giving up when you stop trying to learn and grow as a designer. If UX is your dream job, treat it like your dream job. Go to work, and come home to study UX. Unfortunately, bootcamps make it seem like you will be in and out and making 80k in 6 months, but no matter how you slice it, it’s not an easy transition. Most careers take at least 4 years of college to be considered qualified to practice. Luckily, UX doesn’t require 4 years of studying at a formal school to get a job, but if you just got out of a bootcamp and haven’t been hired yet, you’re not a failure and you are 100% NOT ALONE.
- Find a mentor! I didn’t realize mentorship was so important, until after I graduated. It doesn’t have to be formal, but for some, their mentorship relationship is very formal. Find what works for you. Check out Adplist.org and designed.org for mentorship opportunities. You don’t have to pay for a mentor, but some ask that you do.
Take everything with a grain of salt, because although hard work will take you a long way, a lot of it is luck. There are so many things that can improve your odds, but that’s all it’s doing; improving your odds. Your luck will change based on so many factors. Did you make friends with the right people? Are you going to the right webinars? Did you say or do the right thing? What may impress some recruiters, will bore others. What is playful to some, is juvenile to others. You will look back at things you’ve posted, projects you’ve done, things you’ve said to people, and you’ll laugh or roll your eyes, it’s all part of learning. Your job is to keep learning, become the designer you want to be, and stay true to yourself.
In my search to understand the job market I put out a survey for recent graduates, and those who have recently transitioned into UX to get an idea of their experience looking for work. You can check those results out below.