Filling a Void in the Education System
The design and technology landscape and how they’re used to build digital products has transformed in the past decade. As times have changed, so have the needs of companies recruiting designers. The explosive growth of the tech industry means that traditional universities have struggled to keep up with the pace of change when it comes to how designers work. And so, short intensive courses known as Bootcamps have emerged to fill the void.
Organizations such as Toronto’s Brainstation, Bitmaker (now known as General Assembly Toronto), HackerYou or Bridge (which Rangle is a founding and lead sponsor of) all offer both full or part-time UX and product design courses taking place over a couple of months.
These days a lot of people want to work in tech — and that’s understandable, It’s a fast-paced, growing industry with lots of opportunities. So if you are one of those people, how do you go about deciding if a bootcamp is right for you and then, how do you ensure you get a job after everything is done? This article will help you navigate that path.
What’s the Experience Like?
Having completed a bootcamp myself, I have first-hand experience. But wanting to ensure I was writing from an unbiased viewpoint, I spoke to some other people that had taken bootcamps in the past as well.
The first question I asked was, ‘Why pay all this money for a short course when you can find all this information online and learn yourself?’. A full-time bootcamp in Toronto can range in price from 10K to close to 20K - definitely not cheap. And it is true, a lot of the information you’ll learn in a bootcamp can be found online through free (or at least through much cheaper) sources. However, what you won’t find online is a network of students and instructors you get to work with face-to-face, each and every day throughout the duration of the course. Speaking from personal experience, trying to stay motivated to learn on your own at the same pace as a bootcamp is next to impossible. Although the experience of learning at such a fast-pace is definitely stressful — for the right candidate, it’s worth it.
Bootcamps Aren’t for Everyone
As I’ve alluded to, taking a bootcamp is a big commitment — especially the full-time programs. Taking a full-time program means leaving your full-time job (probably your part-time job) and committing to at least 10–12 weeks of financial uncertainty, while you work long hours to complete the required course materials and projects.
So firstly, you have to be passionate about design — how people use things, how they think and what makes them tick. If you’re not sure about your level of interest (and even if you are), be sure to connect with past students to learn more about their experiences, speak with the program learning advisors to understand the curriculum and even go to a few demo nights, where students showcase their work, to see the types of projects being produced. Although a bootcamp is a great place to get a good understanding of UX and product design, getting a job after the course isn’t always easy. So that passion you have for design will need to carry you forward long after the course has finished and you’ve got that shiny UX certificate.
If you’re a more ‘classically’ trained designer — graphic, industrial or architect for example, a bootcamp is a really great place to augment those skills and make the switch to tech. You already have a design education and hopefully some real-life work experience, so your chances of successfully making the transition will be higher than someone making a 360° career switch. That’s not to say that those coming from a non-design background can’t make it as designers, you definitely can — there are many transferable skills that can help someone be a more well-rounded designer. Just be aware that you’re starting a little further back the race-track than those with a history in design.
Also if you’ve done a university degree before and don’t want to commit to another extended period of study and let’s face it — even larger financial commitments than a bootcamp, then taking a course like this can work for you. You’ll also be back on the job market much faster than any university course, so paying off those course fees can happen much more quickly.
Finally, if you’ve gone through all the steps above and decided yes, a bootcamp is for you — Great! Congratulations, the hard work begins now! To give yourself a head-start, take some time to familiarize yourself with some of the basics of UX and product design.
You Make the Experience
The amount of time and effort you put into the course really defines your experience. It also really depends on whether you choose a full-time or part-time program. In general, I would recommend you choose a full-time program if possible. Taking evening classes a couple of times a week only allows you to skim the surface of the design field, so there will be a much bigger gap between what you know and what you need to know when you’ve finished the course. The intensity of a full-time program helps reduce this gap, but it’s also important to remember that a bootcamp is only the starting point of your learning as a designer. Beyond the course there is lots more to be learned in order to become a well rounded designer.
What You’ll Learn at a Bootcamp
When taking a bootcamp, the most important parts of your experience will be:
1) Understanding the user-centred process at a high-level
2) Building a successful portfolio of design projects
3) Developing a network of connections
1. There is no Single Process
Within the timeframe that a Bootcamp allows, it’s impossible to understand all of the nuances and the level of detail that goes into building a product in the workplace. It’s also worth mentioning that the design process you learn within a bootcamp is very much an ‘idealized process’ and as a designer in the ‘wild’ you’ll have to learn to add-to and subtract-from that process, depending on the type of project you’re working on and the context.
2. Your Portfolio is King
As you work through your series of projects, it’s really important to document everything you do, whether that means taking scans of sketches, photographing design review sessions and generally making sure all your artifacts are stored safely away for when the time comes to build your portfolio. You’ll also be learning a lot in a short space of time, so expect to be returning to initial projects and reworking them (when you have time after the course) as your early efforts won’t be as strong as what you produce in the latter stages of the course.
3. People Hire People
Networking is one of the real values of taking a bootcamp. Whether you’re an introvert, an extrovert or somewhere in-between, it’s important to find those within the program that you connect with from both a personal and a design point of view. Aligning yourself to like-minded individuals helps keep each other motivated and you can share your learnings as the course progresses.
What You’ll Need to Learn Outside of a Bootcamp
UX and product design is a complex and ever-changing space, so making a plan to continue learning beyond the course is vital to your success. Here’s how to help ensure that:
1. An Agile Frame of Mind
Sure, bootcamps do operate in an Agile sort of way — you run design sprints, iterate based on feedback and collaborate with other team members. But working as part of a Scrum team in a product design consultancy like Rangle for example, is very different. Here we collaborate cross-functionally with a team of product managers, scrum masters, developers, QA’s and designers. Learning to speak the language of Scrum and understanding how to work within a cross functional team is something that’s really hard to learn until you are actually working in industry. You can start to offset this problem after you’ve finished the course by taking on freelance or pro-bono work — AngelList is a great place to start. By doing this, you have the chance to get an opportunity to work in this way and be able to speak to it when you land that first interview for a full-time position.
2. Speaking to Non-Designers
This is as important a part of being a designer as any. If you can’t communicate the value of design and articulate your design decisions to stakeholders, then all of your hard work goes to waste. You will learn how to present your design work (which is super important), but in most cases it will be to a room of other designers. Learning to articulate the value of design to non-designers and being able to align your design decisions to business value is key to your success as a designer. To start learning more about this, these books are good places to start:
3. Considering all the Details
While you should expect to come out of a bootcamp with a high level understanding of how to design a digital experience, the reality is that in an actual working environment — things happen very differently.
Anything involving technology is going to have to be learned in a company — because companies are so far ahead.
John Maeda — High Resolution podcast, issue #8
There just isn’t time for learning about all the more granular detail that goes into creating a great user-experience. Specifying states, considering how individual components work across breakpoints and understanding the technical feasibility of your design decisions are some of the things you probably will have to learn on the job. To see how design is specified in detail, take a look at some design systems — you’ll also get an overview how components are built from both a design and technical perspective. Here are some great examples:
Landing the Job
The most important part of the article. That’s why you’re going to put your life on hold and do this thing, right?
If you’re one of those lucky people that gets a job straight after the program finishes, then go-you! You won’t need to read the rest of this article. For the rest of us, there’s a lot more work to be done before we can start making some well-earned cash. Hopefully the bootcamp you take will give you some post-course help with this, but if not, you can still feel confident in making it as a professional designer. Bear in mind, this is where the hard work begins and persistence pays off. On average, from personal experience and from others I’ve spoken to — getting a job can take anywhere from 4–8 months. So when considering the financial implications of taking the course, be sure to have a built-in a buffer for a few months. You might get a job sooner than that, but there’s a good chance it will take a few months and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
As I’ve said, there’s quite a few bootcamps in Toronto, so this means there are a lot of junior designers that are searching for work at the same time. Even though you’ll generally be considered to be a junior design when searching for work, unfortunately the expectation in the industry can sometimes be that designers come into a role workplace ready. This means having examples of client work you’ve completed and understanding how to work in an Agile environment.
So, how can you overcome this barrier? Differentiate yourself from the crowd. You can do this in a number of ways:
1. Showing Good Work
Sounds obvious right? A solid portfolio will go a long way in getting you hired. Treat your portfolio like you would any other UX project; Conduct competitive analysis to see what others are doing in the space, gather precedents, create mood-boards and style tiles, sketch layout ideas and make sure your attention to detail on copy is on-point. Above all, be sure to get feedback from those working in the industry to see how you can improve your case studies and portfolio in general. Include only your strongest pieces of work, if you’re not sure about something — leave it out. Chances are if you think it’s not worth showing, then it’s weakening the strength of your portfolio.
Make sure your portfolio expresses who you are as a designer and as a person. Whether it’s through quirky copy, a distinct visual brand or otherwise — aim to get yourself noticed. Recruiters see lots of portfolios of junior designers and that means presenting yourself in the best possible way is vital. Yes, we all say that we design ‘with empathy, using human centred design’, but what are you really about as a designer?
In terms of the case studies, tell the story of how your solution solved the problem you were presented with and don’t just show the final result. Flows, personas, journeys — anything that shows your thought process is vital. Don’t be afraid to show the mistakes you made and how you learned from them along the way.
2. Dust off that Resume
Coming from a bootcamp, you may have very little experience as a designer, so it can be useful to look for themes in your previous roles that highlight transferable skills. For example, if you worked in the healthcare industry, how did your role help develop your sense of empathy for others? Or how did it inspire you to apply for that job in healthtech that you just landed an interview for? Again, be sure to get feedback from others to strengthen your resume and learn where potential holes are.
Another thing to consider is how you want to position yourself as a designer in terms of the role you’d like to land. Would you like to be a generalist or a specialist? Visual, UX or product designer? This isn’t a decision you have to stick rigidly to, you can always switch roles as your career develops and you know more about what you like. Calling yourself a UX/UI/Web/Graphic designer does nobody any favours! Feel free to customize the title on your resume to specific roles, but understand the differences between what it means to be a generalist: Product Design (Visual and UX — get to dip your toe in both fields, but not go as deep) or a specialist: UX or Visual designer (Focus on a single discipline, but delve much more deeply into the field).
This is an often overlooked aspect of the job search. Essentially what you’re doing is reaching out to people you know (and also those you don’t) to learn more about the industry and build stronger connections. People are usually willing to meet for coffee to give you feedback and advice when they have the time. Don’t go into any of these meetings expecting to get offered a job, but get your name out there by going to events, attending workshops and buying coffees for those willing to chat. The end result is that you might just know enough about the industry to give yourself an edge on others who are sitting at home in front of their computers applying to endless jobs. It is however, important to make sure your Linkedin profile is as strong as your resume — make sure you’ve got recommendations from previous employers, along with endorsements in the skills section of your profile.
You Got the Job
Starting that first role in tech can be a daunting experience, but provided you’ve landed the right role — this is your first step on the road to a successful career.
As a junior designer, the ideal scenario is that you’re working with a team of other designers you can learn from, whether that be on the consultancy or product side. I’m a little bit biased, but for me the range of projects and experience working with a variety of clients is something you’ll only get in a consultancy. I learned a hell of a lot in my first year at Rangle which was mainly because of the open learning culture and the wide variety of projects I was exposed to.
Keep in mind your ideal role and if possible, try to hold out for that type of position. You’ll know how well you’re doing in your job search judging by the amount of interviews and call-backs you’re getting. If you’re making a lot of job applications and not getting any responses, maybe it’s time to revise your approach or get some additional feedback on your portfolio. Don’t be too fussy, but if you’re gut is telling you a role doesn’t feel right, then it might mean taking a pass until a better opportunity comes along. Of course, this all depends on your life circumstances and financial constraints.
Be prepared to ask lots of questions and to do lots of on the job learning in your first job. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know everything - allow yourself to be vulnerable. But also remember a large portion of being a designer is thinking critically and problem solving, so bear this in mind as you come across challenging design problems.
Overall, a bootcamp can be a career and life changing experience if you have the passion, persistence and hustle to make the change. If you take the leap and enroll in one of these courses, remember — this is only the beginning. Excelling as a designer means continuous learning, development and being open to always learning from those around you.