Hi, I’m Chi.
And I never thought I would have a job as a “designer”.
Seriously. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a writer. Then a figure skater. Then a doctor. Then I got to college and had NO CLUE what I wanted to do. I felt all this pressure to figure out what I was going to do when I graduated and… I had no clue. It was terrifying.
To end up here, where I am today, blows my mind. Here’s my story:
First, let me give you some basics:
I grew up in San Diego, CA.
My dad is now a software engineer, but we never talked about work. Growing up, he had many other jobs. When I eventually saw glimpses of what he did (sooo many books on coding and programming) and I decided from a young age I would probably never end up in tech/programming.
I went to Washington University in St Louis where I dabbled in a lot of different things. i still had no idea what I wanted to major in.
I changed my major from: Mathematics > Biomedical Science > Philosophy/Neuroscience/Psychology > Public Health > Environmental Sciences > Environmental Policy.
Eventually, I fell in love with my environmental classes. I graduated from WUSTL in 2014 with a major in Environmental Policy, double minors in Earth & Planetary Science and Public Health.
Bright eyed and optimistic on saving the world, I moved to Washington DC to work at an environmental nonprofit. There, I did a lot of community organizing and customer support.
And here is where my journey with UX starts. I was quickly reaching burnout and knew I didn’t want to be a community organizer for the rest of my life. I just didn’t have what it took. At that point, my boss asked me to redesign the website. So I started doing research on best practices for how to redesign your website.
Which is how I found UX Design.
User experience (UX) design is the process of creating products that provide meaningful and relevant experiences to users. This involves the design of the entire process of acquiring and integrating the product, including aspects of branding, design, usability, and function.
And as far as what I’ll be doing at Google, I’ll be doing a little bit more Service Design as well.
Service design is a process in which the designer focuses on creating optimal service experiences. This requires taking a holistic view of all the related actors, their interactions, and supporting materials and infrastructures (including apps and technology). Service Design focuses more on all touchpoints in which a user might interact with a brand or company.
Just as a point of clarification: I focus more on the STRATEGY of a design, rather then the end colors/pixels/animations. The latter is what a UI designer or even some front-end engineers might do.
From there, it’s been quite a journey! And now, as I am about to move to California to start a UX/Service Design job at Google, I can’t help but look back and reflect… And answer some of the most popular questions I get! Here goes nothing!
Q: What is your current job?
A: I am a Senior Product Designer at Aetna (a health insurance company). I help design Aetna’s mobile app and website, focusing on the parts of the app that are helping users change their behavior. The main problem I am solving is: If we can help you be healthier, then we can also help you save money on your health insurance. So how can we build features in the app that help with that?
Q: What is UX Design? Do you also code/build software?
A: GREAT QUESTION. Welcome to the magical world of tech beyond being a software developer! Guys, there are SO many different fields and disciplines… and I believe that the more diverse your team is, the better the products we can build!
First, UX Design is designing the process that users go through to do X within your product. Second, no I do not code!
Here’s an analogy to explain all the different jobs/disciplines that are generally present in tech /software/product design:
To build a product (digital app, etc), you will most likely work with user researchers, product managers, UX designers, UI/visual designers, front-end developers, back-end developers.
Now let’s imagine that you are trying to open a bakery that will sell the best tasting, most popular cake in the city! If you were following a design thinking process (commonly used in design/tech), here is what the steps might generally look like:
First step: Do your research
Market research, product research, and user research are all things that need to be done. What kind of cake do most people in the city like? Are there any other bakeries that sell it? What are the top recipes for this cake? What are some market trends?
If digging into this problem space and conducting user interviews to learn problems from a user’s perspectives, user research might be a good career option to explore! Folks who generally fill this role have had anthropology/sociology/psychology backgrounds (but not always, of course!). Basically… can you do research that helps us understand what the user is feeling, thinking, and experiencing? Can you be empathetic? Can you talk to users?
second step: define product strategy
Maybe your research shows that everyone in your city loves chocolate cake. How many bakeries already offer chocolate cake? How are you going to differentiate yourself in the market? What’s your strategy for making your cake the most popular in the city? How will you beat your competitors? What’s your roll-out and implementation strategy? When is your launch date? How much is your chocolate cake worth to the user? What tools do you have to make the cake? These are just some of the questions that you might ask to define your product strategy. Your job is to figure out how your business is going to remain profitable.
If this is interesting, product management/strategy might be interesting to explore! Generally, being able to balance big picture vision and every day execution is important. Plus you better know that business case like the back of your hand!
third step: ideate & test
Okay okay, now you know your strategy for the chocolate cake. But now you have to actually figure out the recipe for the thing! Now is a time to experiment, collaborate with others, and just come up with as many ideas as you can to solve your problem. Understand what your user wants, understand what your business needs/constraints are, and figure out that sweet spot in the middle. What ingredients are you going to use? In what order will you combine and mix those ingredients? What process will someone take to follow the recipe? How can you make the recipe as easy and intuitive as possible, but guarantee good results every time? You might create sample cakes to test with people and gather feedback, which you’ll use to further refine your recipe.
If this sounds interesting, user experience design might be a fit! Skills that are important here are being able to empathize with the user, ideating and generating a lot of ideas, but also being able to skillfully assess what the most feasible and impactful solution is according to your constraints.
fourth step: refine
Now is the time to tighten things up and decide the visual strategy. Will your chocolate cake be square? Circular? Will it have frosting? Will it have candles? Does the chocolate cake fit your bakery’s brand? Is every chocolate cake the same consistent design?
If this is interesting, user interface/product/visual design might be a fit! Here, it’s especially important to have strong visual design chops (and maybe interaction/animation skills as well!). Typically graphic design or art school folks find the most natural transition into UI positions. But ultimately, you must have a strong attention to detail, love for consistency and systems, and some seriously creative visual juices!
fifth step: build
Yay it’s time to bake the cake!! Follow the recipe and instructions and soon, you should have the most delicious chocolate cake ever.
HERE is when coding and software engineers come into play (they might be consulting and advising earlier, but now is when the building starts). Front-end developers are responsible for baking and decorating the cake (using code and various tools) according to the design/recipe. Back-end developers are responsible for building and maintaining the oven and tools that bakers use to make the cake. Some folks can do both, in which case you are a full-stack engineer!
*Note: This bakery biz isn’t a perfect analogy (especially for the engineer part), but it was the best I could do :P
So as you can see, there is a HUGE variety of jobs and skillsets involved with tech and design. Hopefully you can see yourself in some of these descriptions! It’s just a matter of applying your current skills in different and new contexts.
I started out doing community organizing and customer support at my environmental nonprofit. NOT tech related at all, right? But the skills I learned from those jobs included: talking to people, understanding their pains and concerns, and helping problem solve for that. Those are all skills I use today in my job.
**Note: This is NOT an exhaustive list of all the jobs involved in building a product/software in tech. There’s also information architects, ux strategists, scrum masters, design program managers….. the list goes on and on!
Q: How did you get started in UX design?
A: In the beginning, I was just desperately doing all the free, online things I possibly could. I worked at a nonprofit at the time, so I needed to ‘build the ship as I sailed it’… aka learn about UX design while doing it.
Resources I used:
UXPA DC Conference
Other books that I love:
Q: How did you actually switch your career?
A: So, this has a two part answer. First off, I was lucky enough to have the space to “do” UX things at my nonprofit. I pretty much just did projects that were UX focused. The problem was, I was still a noob and didn’t really have a mentor to help me grow/get better. So after 1.5 years, I decided that I both (a) wanted to leave Washington DC and (b) get more formal training on UX stuff/get a mentor.
Which brings me to pt 2 of my education: General Assembly
I decided to do General Assembly’s UX Design Immersive in San Francisco from March-May 2016. At the same time, I was offered a full tuition scholarship through GA’s Opportunity Fund (to help more diverse candidates enter tech). So basically I got to attend this design bootcamp for free, which was a huge factor in my decision. (Had I not gotten this scholarship, I don’t know if I would have gone, nor do I know if it would have been worth it to go).
Things that I really liked about General Assembly:
I got a more formal training on UX design concepts, terminologies, and processes
I got to meet a lot of people in SF who were doing the same thing
I got to build a portfolio out of it
Things that I don’t love about GA:
There are a LOT of cohorts - and a lot of people in each cohort. I don’t know if you get the attention/instruction you need, nor the career support after the program. I would say if you’re a self-starter and highly motivated, you’ll make and find a way. For those who need more support and guidance, or maybe aren’t 100% this is the right career path, GA would be a little less helpful.
After I graduated from the program, I moved to Colorado and got a job at a UX design agency called EffectiveUI, thanks largely in part to my new portfolio (which did contain projects from my nonprofit days). You can check it out here: www.chiphamdesign.com
Q: Any tips in the job hunt? i.e. Networking, reaching out, etc?
A: YES! Check out this whole article I wrote when I landed my design gig at Effective!
Q: What was the interview process at Google like?
A: Generally speaking, the main stages of the interview process for me were:
Recruiter screening call
Hiring manager screening call
Final onsite interview
Any additional calls with hiring managers (to match with a team, if you haven’t already)
I had the fortune of having someone refer me (which I do think made a difference) into the bigger Google system, but once you apply you’re kind of on your own. I found the final onsite interview to be pretty challenging as it is basically 6 back-to-back interviews filled with whiteboard challenges, thought exercises, and questions!
For me, I was interviewing for a full-time position. The process took about 5 months from application > offer letter!
Q: How did you prep for your interview at Google?
A: SO MUCH PRACTICE, I CANNOT EVEN. I practiced answering questions, doing whiteboard challenges, presenting my design challenge and portfolio.
But perhaps even more importantly, I practiced my self-confidence. I get quite nervous when it comes to interviewing, especially for things I might feel imposter syndrome in, so it was especially important for me to practice feeling confident. I swear, it made a huge difference. Here’s what I did:
Practiced taking deep breaths. YES I PRACTICED THIS. But science shows that taking 5 deep belly breaths can help slow things down and calm some of your anxieties.
Put together a list of 10 Reasons Why I’ll Succeed. I wrote down a list of all the reasons why I thought I would be successful. Then I sent it to my best friends and asked them to also add to the list. I made sure to reread this list right before my interview!
Cultivate a Confidence Jar. Every time I did something well or something I was proud of, I put a note in a jar. Then the night before my interview, I reread all the notes to remind myself that I CAN do this and I DO know my shit.
Q: Any advice for college students? Or folks who just want to jump into this career field?
A: To my college students/recent grads: I KNOW there’s so much pressure on you to figure out your “perfect job” or career field. I know, and I know it sucks. I’m sorry you feel that pressure! If there’s any comfort I can give you, know that my story is an example of how you don’t always need to know exactly what your career is, but you need to be open to new fields and you need to pursue building skills that you enjoy.
Generally speaking, the easiest/most straightforward path into tech is with a computer science degree. If you’re interested in the design side of the house, I know there have been plenty of people who studied a mixture of computer science, psychology, and design throughout their undergrad. If possible, keep your eyes peeled for companies that offer internships in UX/UI or User Research!
For folks looking to transition your career: I also know your pain! It can seem daunting… did I just go to school and waste 4 years learning about something to just … throw it away? I am so intimidated about how much there is ahead to learn! <— at least, that’s how I felt when I was contemplating a career switch.
The best advice I have is this: There is never a good time to switch your career besides right now. Throw yourself into learning as much as possible on the side. Go to UX meetups. Meet people and ask them to coffee to pick their brain. Get a mentor. Try doing side projects for fun/volunteer work. With each project or experience, you will learn something!
Q: Can you work remote with this job?
A: Definitely depends on the company, but many jobs are remote friendly (aka work 1-2 days from home). And there are definitely companies that exist that are 100% remote!
It took me working at Aetna for 1 year before I convinced them to let me work remotely for the month of my Europe trip.
Well that’s it!
Please leave a comment if you think I missed anything. But I hope you found this helpful.
And lastly, just a thought: To me, it is mind blowing how much of your life and your path is determined by what you know and what you’re exposed to. I had no idea that this whole world of design and tech existed, because I had never known anyone who did this job!!
SO, consider this now your open invitation into this world. If you have any questions, I am always here. The field of tech NEEDS your diverse background, perspectives, and thoughts to build better, more inclusive and more impactful things. We really do.