- Lily Li moved from Virginia to SF after graduating from art school.
- He searched the web for local events to find a community and eventually began attending hackathons regularly.
- Li shares how she started her own meeting for designers and grew up doing exercises and critiques with them.
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I felt stagnant. I made the typical Virginia move, moving to work in DC after graduating from an arts school in Virginia. I had been working as a designer for companies in the DC area, starting with an internship for the Executive Office of the Obama President in the summer of 2016, then went on to work at biotech, medical, and financial technology companies.
However, I felt that none of them were really driving innovation. I enjoyed designing digital experiences, but knew I was not completely challenged. Out of curiosity, I looked up how apps like Facebook and Snapchat were designed. Throughout college, these were the most popular apps on every student’s phone.
I learned that UX or product designers work on the design of these applications. However, he didn’t know anything about the tech industry; it seemed an exclusive world that only a select few understood.
But I lived by the principle that if I surrounded myself with the right people, I would become the average of those people. So if I wanted to change who I was, I had to change my actions, which meant changing my conditions. I searched for cities that had a thriving tech scene building apps and narrowed my list down to San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Ultimately, no city could rival Silicon Valley. The only problem was the cost of living.
I read on forums that living in San Francisco was very expensive and my family thought I was crazy to use my savings to move to the most expensive city in the US. But based on my experience living in DC (another expensive city), the Rent was cheaper than what was being hyped online.
I emailed every room on the San Francisco craigslist within my budget range. No one responded when I said I was out of state except for one list. It was a cramped apartment with a small bedroom for $ 750 via Craigslist. I traded driver’s licenses with the landlord for identification purposes, and after briefly speaking with them on the phone, I decided to take a chance and sent them a month’s rent as a deposit. I knew I had to dip into my savings to survive in San Francisco while learning about the industry, and even if I couldn’t get into technology, I could make ends meet with another job.
The cheapest one-way flight to San Francisco was $ 400 on Google Flights, plus around $ 150 for two checked bags. My arts school in Virginia had virtually no alumni network in Northern California. I caught up with a former college classmate for dinner to catch up, and that was the scope of my network (a year later, when they hosted an alumni reunion event in SF, only about 10 people attended).
I searched the web for local events to get acquainted with the community. I went to some tech talks, found all the gyms open for volleyball (my favorite hobby), and picked my favorite cafes in different districts. Finally, I started attending hackathons regularly. I found a particular liking for hackathons, where people competed to build products in a short period of time. Eventbrite was my go-to platform, followed by Facebook events.
From my experience at the hackathon, I noticed that there was no close-knit design community, whereas the software engineers had a huge network. I started a meeting for designers and grew up doing exercises and critiques with other designers. As I approached the 250 members, a Product Design Director (thank you Glen Lipka, I’ll always be grateful) came over and suggested that I read Alan Cooper’s “About Face”, a must read for anyone who is serious about designing interaction.
After attending several hackathons, I finally got enough experience to win two great hackathons (Angelhack and BeMyApp). I was able to join their incubator program which lasted three months. I learned by trial and error how to create digital products from an early stage, and I even met an investor.
This experience eventually led me to do product design for early stage startups. This was not without help. I’m thankful that I found the right mentors, because there were tough times when the ending seemed so ambiguous. However, having mentorship gave me direction and stamina to keep going. It helped me to know that others were supporting me and I didn’t want to let them down.
After a few additional projects, I gained enough experience to create a portfolio and started interviewing again. Previously, I applied for hundreds of jobs in San Francisco when I didn’t live in the city and lacked product experience. Now, it was finally reaching the final sites. I regularly practiced with other designers on how I could improve my interview game, especially whiteboard presentations and challenges (you can see some of the ones I did on my youtube.com/designalily).
It was a mental and numbers game. I told myself that I should target at least 10 sites. After more than 2 months of rejections, I was finally able to improve my presentation skills to land two full-time offers. I pitched so many times that I knew my presentation like the back of my hand.
I received two offers: one for senior product design at a fintech startup with a base salary of $ 155,000 and another at a transportation innovation startup for a base salary of $ 135,000 with a performance bonus of 15%.
I chose the latter because I was less interested in fintech and more interested in what the innovation startup was building, specifically, how mobile sensors could measure driving behavior.
Currently, I go back to product consulting. Now, I’m focusing on helping other non-tech professionals get into product design. If I could go back in time, I wish I had sought a mentor sooner. It would have saved me a lot of time with a path clearly laid out by someone who has experienced it.
I should have also looked for a community before, one that would help me work towards my goal of becoming a product designer. It’s an especially tough and lonely journey when you don’t have a following. I have built and am nurturing a design community like this, so it can help designers like me. I also provide tutoring through my content on YouTube.
Lily is a product designer and content creator known as Designalily. He has taught workshops to product designers from organizations such as Google, Stanford, Amazon, and Salesforce.