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March 17, 2023
Why you should treat your UX research career like a product, how to build your career roadmap, and how to thrive as a UX researcher.
Most people—including product people—don't think of their career as a product. And even the best researchers often neglect to do the research to identify suitable roles and opportunities. The result? They stay in roles for too long, or accept one that simply doesn't align with their career goals, interest, or values. They burn out and feel stuck. Sarah Doody, Founder and CEO of Career Strategy Lab, joins us to share why you should start thinking of your User Research career as a product and how you can start doing so today.
In this episode:
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Sarah Doody is the Founder and CEO of Career Strategy Lab, a job search accelerator and UX recruiting agency for UX and Product professionals. In 2017, she founded The UX Portfolio Formula, a UX career accelerator that helps UX professionals create, cultivate, and achieve their career goals.
[00:00:00] Sarah Doody: There could be times in your career where you have two different opportunities. If you think to yourself, "This other job is going to pay me less, but I get experience in this industry," that could be a good career move for two years or something like that.
[00:00:20] Erin May: This is Erin May.
[00:00:22] JH Henry Forster: I'm JH Henry Forster. This is Awkward Silences.
[00:00:27] Erin: Silences. [laughs] Hello everybody, and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today, we're here with Sarah Doody, who is the CEO and Founder of Career Strategy Lab. Today, we're going to be talking about treating your UX Research Career Like a Product. Sarah, welcome. Happy to have you.
[00:00:51] Sarah: Thanks, Erin. I'm excited to be here.
[00:00:54] Erin: Got JH here too.
[00:00:55] Sarah: Hi, JH.
[00:00:56] JH: Hey, how's it going?
[00:00:57] Sarah: Doing well.
[00:00:58] JH: I feel like as a product person, I always do the cliché of, "Just treat everything like a product. Treat the company like a product." I'm excited for this one. It feels in my wheelhouse.
[00:01:05] Erin: Yes. What does that mean? "To treat something like a product"?
[00:01:09] Sarah: Treating your career like a product? Yes. I have been, I guess accidentally, working in this space of UX careers, UX portfolios, UX resumes, et cetera, ever since 2017. I identified this problem back in 2017. Looking back, I think it really was my research superpower that led me down this path, but I noticed this irony, really, where a lot of UX people, regardless if you do research, or writing, or strategy, or whatever, they don't treat their career like a product.
The byproduct of that is people, for example, staying in roles for too long or accepting a job that really doesn't align with their career goals, interest values, et cetera. Or even simple things like playing the numbers game in the job search rather than doing some research to identify the right roles for them. That's where I went down this path, but to me, it's so ironic.
Erin, it reminds me of working with startup founders. I don't know if you've had this experience? They're so close to the product that they forget to do obvious things. I think when you look at yourself as a product and your career like a product, that analogy of a startup founder it's exactly the same as you floundering through your job search or spiraling about some decision in your career.
[00:02:48] Erin: Right. Like just not even stopping to ask the right question, any questions. It's like, "I don't know." What do you want out of your next job? Let's start there. Are you happy? Just basic stuff. I'm excited to get into this.
[00:03:02] Sarah: A really tangible thing that I think maybe all of us could relate to because I'm definitely guilty of this. In the past, sitting down to work on your resume or a presentation of your work or something, and jumping right into the design of it. Like, "Let's fire up Keynote or whatever," or whatever you make your resume in these days. That is how you end up with these resumes, et cetera, that don't communicate the range of your skills and experience. I think I'm so passionate about this because I see so many talented people really selling themselves short, especially in the job search.
[00:03:43] Erin: We're talking about how everything's a product in this conversation, but this is where I go to everything is marketing too.
[00:03:48] Sarah: Yes.
[00:03:48] Erin: Who cares? If you can't sell yourself, it might as well-- You're the tree in the forest. No, one's around. You got to sell it.
[00:03:59] JH: Where does somebody start? I want to wake up and have this realization that I need to be more intentional about what I want and how I present myself. How do you even open that box in the first place?
[00:04:10] Sarah: I run this program called Career Strategy Lab. The first step when you join this program, Career Strategy Lab is this job search accelerator, for lack of a better word. You could think of it as a startup incubator, but for your career/job search. One of the first things we do is this exercise that results in what we call a career roadmap because guess what? Products have roadmaps. Guess what happens when you don't have a product roadmap? It's like, "Not good." Basically, you're Juicero probably. I don't know if you remember Juicero.
[00:04:48] JH: Yes.
[00:04:48] Erin: Yes. That was an early user interview career.
[00:04:52] Sarah: Oh, yes. Or Google Wave is another fun example I love.
[00:04:55] Erin: Oh, I love that.
[00:04:56] JH: I was high on that one. I never came to Google.
[00:04:58] Sarah: [laughs] Some people were probably born after Google Wave, but anyway. This idea of the career roadmap, if we think of the steps in product discovery and various elements of UX, research is the first thing. For people who are thinking, "How could I create my own career roadmap?" That's where you have to do a miniature user research project on yourself. I'm sure some people are thinking, "Oh, my God. How do I do that? That would be so intimidating and awkward." There's really simple things you could do.
One of the things we do is have people get out a piece of paper or fire up your favorite tool and make a timeline of your career so far. Plot out the things that you've done, and on that timeline, add this element of your personal happiness, satisfaction, work-life balance. Whatever those values are to you, somehow layer those in. That's just one example of how you would be doing some user research to start to reflect on where you've been. There's so many ways you could do this, but this is just one of the examples.
Another thing we do is, we tell people to contact people you have worked with or for in the past that you have good relationships with, and ask them what strengths they think you have, for example. I know in my career, I've had situations where people say I'm really good at something and I thought, "How the heck do you think that?" Then years later, I think they were so right. We make it really easy because we give people questions to basically cut and paste and stuff, but that's how you would start creating this career roadmap.
[00:06:53] Erin: On that, Sarah, I feel like that's research. Like you said, you don't have to just take it all at face value and use it. You take it in and do some analysis and figure out what you want to use when you sell yourself.
[00:07:04] Sarah: Exactly.
[00:07:05] Erin: What feels true to you? What fits the narrative you want to sell when you-- I like how you're describing. It's almost like a customer journey map of, "Here's my professional life and when I was happy and sad." I imagine this appeals to a lot of researchers. This is the work you're doing all the time, anyway. You get to apply it to yourself and your career.
[00:07:24] Sarah: It's like a career journey map. Based on the research you gather, then the next step is to really start to make a more tangible product strategy/product roadmap.
When I think about a career, I think about that in a quite granular fashion by thinking about, "What are the goals I have?" It's up to everyone how far you want to go out with your goals, but I recommend 12 months or so because things change so fast. Think about 12 months and then break that down to quarters.
In each quarter, think about what are the skills you want to develop. What areas of research do you want to become more adept in? I think in UX and research, especially I think people are stressed out with thinking they have to learn every new software and every new method and every new this and that. If I was just starting out right now, I would be equally as frustrated as so many people out there. When you break it down into these yearly goals and quarterly focus, it's almost like you're building your own professional development curriculum.
[00:08:47] JH: You're going to come out of this with some realizations. "Okay, I realize I'm happiest when I'm getting to coach or mentor," or something. Then the idea is that the strategy and the road mapping is bringing that into like, "What path could I go down from here?" In that example, like, "Maybe I should go to try to get my way into a management track because I think that would align." Is that what you're saying?
[00:09:05] Sarah: Exactly. It's thinking about the future roles you want so that you are acquiring the skills you're going to need now to get that job you want two years from now. A lot of people, especially thinking about what job you want to accept next, so many people are on a hamster wheel of thinking, "I just need to get a job." They're not thinking about, "Will this job equip me with the skills, the experience, the network, even that would be valuable so I could become that UX research manager I want to be two or three years from now?"
[00:09:45] Erin: On that note, different people in different markets in different situations can afford to be choosier or less choosy depending on some of those internal and external factors. "How much experience do you have? What's going on in the market?" Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. What is going on in the market? It's been a wild time in the job market. Can you just lay this down for us in terms of where are we right now, if I am a UX researcher, or an aspiring UX researcher, what am I entering right now and how should I think about how choosy to be or not choose to be? Or what should I know?
[00:10:22] Sarah: Macro and I will caveat all this by saying, this is not based on quantitative data. I'm not going to source anything. This is all just--
[00:10:32] Erin: Sure. We love qualitative data.
[00:10:34] Sarah: Yes. This is all just anecdotal observations. As I observe the people in my Career Strategy Lab Program, go through the job search process, and what I see on social media, et cetera. I think that recently, Facebook or Meta and Netflix in some other places announced layoffs and stuff, and I think that creates this knee jerk reaction in the industry. I don't see UX slowing down. I don't think that is a domino that's going to kick off some two or three year freeze.
The reason I think that is, if you think of the world we've just gone through in the past two years with a pandemic and such, that is for so many companies to go digital. Think of brick and mortars and stuff, combined with companies needing solutions to allow them to work remotely. If I put those two things together, I think it's a safe gamble to think that the field of UX is not going anywhere, or slowing down because we need people to help those companies go digital and create the software that we're all using and going to use to work remotely.
[00:12:05] JH: Yes. I would agree with that. The overall trend of the number of UX opportunities or research opportunities, I think is going to continue to go up. There might be some short term fluctuations, or dips, or tough spots, but I think you're right in the macro sense. The thing I wanted to go back to just to like connect another point with that reflection and ask you some questions, a number of years ago, actually read a book Designing Your Life, which had some of these prompts in there about like, "What do you want from your career, and work for you?" All this sort of stuff.
I did that and it was awkward to sit there and like write out your Flan and reflection, and stuff. What I found out of it was, once I had done that, and then I was like interviewing for different roles, I was much better at telling my story of what sort of thing I was looking for. Do you see that too with the people you work with? Not only does this give you a sense of where to look, but then once you go look there, you're like a more compelling candidate because you have opinions and you know what you want.
[00:12:55] Sarah: 100 million percent. When people get hired out of Career Strategy Lab, we have them fill out an exit survey/testimonial. So many people mentioned this career roadmap helping them do exactly what you said. Because when you have a really clear vision of who you are, what your skills are, and what you want to do in the future. That, for example, allows you to conduct a faster job search because you're not applying to tons and tons of roles, you're being really strategic.
Conveniently, I have a big database of all of this and let me just read what someone said. This person switched from administration to content design at a very large financial company, and they increase their salary by 178%. They said, "Creating a career roadmap was invaluable to figuring out what I really want to do as a designer or what my strengths are. I've always had a hard time going to bat for myself and really underestimated my abilities, doing all the foundational work really helped build my confidence."
That is just one example of many similar statements about that. I think a big part of that is that confidence component, because that is reflected when you get to the interviews and that can sometimes make the difference between whether or not you proceed in the interviews or not.
[00:14:33] JH: Then the other part, I guess, of that is when you are interviewing on your job search, there are all these other artifacts. You have your story and what you're looking for, but then you have a resume, or portfolio, or other things. How do you factor into thinking about those things like a product and weave that in?
[00:14:48] Sarah: Oh, this is great. One thing we are very strict about is based on five or six years of research, a big mistake so many people make is that they try and perfect their resume, their portfolio, their this, that, the other. One way that we are trying to redirect people away from perfection is to remind them like, "Hey, let's go back to your product roots. What do we do?" We make an MVP and not like a duct taped together MVP.
[00:15:26] Erin: Sure.
[00:15:26] Sarah: I don't really love this whole minimum lovable product language, but I'm like, "Let's make something that is good enough that we're not embarrassed by, but that we feel like is the honest effort that will allow us to test if we're on the right track." When I hear people saying, "I've applied to 50, 100, 200, 400 jobs, and have not had an interview, or had 5 interviews," I think to myself, "They definitely went down the perfection path."
The side effect of pursuing this perfection is that you are not getting stakeholder feedback early enough. Or another way to say that would be, you're not testing your resume fast enough, you're not testing your portfolio fast enough. In Career Strategy Lab, we say, "You're going to make your minimum viable resume, your minimum viable portfolio. We're going to greenlight that so you don't have to agonize about, "Is it ready or not?" Then, you're going to go start applying.
Because of the little tiny tweaks that people spend all weekends making, at the end of the day, that person who is looking at your resume, portfolio, et cetera, they probably wouldn't know the difference. This MVP approach, it's not just about getting your materials ready faster, it's getting your materials ready so you can apply so you can test to see if those materials actually work.
Because we've had many, many people say, and I'm paraphrasing, but like, "I didn't even finish the resume module and I made some small changes and now I have X number of interviews." Or, "I tweaked my LinkedIn profile based on lessons two, three, and four, and the next day, I had X number of messages from recruiters for roles that I'm actually interested in." To me, as the product owner of Career Strategy Lab to get totally meta, that's how I know the curriculum is working when I receive feedback like that.
[00:17:45] Erin: Practically, so you have your minimum viable resume portfolio, LinkedIn profile, and you start putting them out there to apply. We're not going for statistical significance, quantitative, this would take a very long time. You're just trying to get it out there. Tactically, how do people get that feedback, because most, depending on who you're applying to and the volume of resumes, and so on, you might not hear anything. Is that enough signal to go off of or do you ask the recruiter? Like, "Please just give me some feedback, any feedback because I'm trying to iterate on this thing. Help me do that."
[00:18:22] Sarah: I think there's levels here. I think the big red flag is if you're not getting any air views, then something is drastically wrong. There's a couple of variables involved, though. It could be your resume, your portfolio, your LinkedIn, it also could be that you are applying to jobs that are not a right fit for you.
For example, I literally am hiring for a UX designer role right now. I just press publish last night, and I was reviewing some of the applications this morning. It's not to work with me personally, it's because the company hired me to help them recruit. The company needs people to be available to work synchronously during Pacific hours. I put this on the job description, et cetera, and I have a bunch of applications from people in places like Dubai or elsewhere, where it would be the middle of the night.
Sure, could that theoretically maybe work? I guess, but I personally don't think it's a good situation if a candidate is going to be up all night to do this three month contract. That's an example of where those candidates might not hear back some of them might, but they probably applied to the wrong role. Does that make sense? That example.
[00:19:49] Erin: Yes. It's like a product market fit thing.
[00:19:50] Sarah: Yes.
[00:19:51] Erin: You didn't build the wrong product, you just tried to get it in front of the wrong people.
[00:19:55] Sarah: I think the level one of assessing, "Are your materials working? Are you even getting interviews?" I think UX people love to complain about the hiring process and how unfair it is, and blah, blah, blah, but let's put ourselves in the shoes of the people doing the hiring. If I'm receiving 400, 600, 100 applications for jobs, do I personally have time to go and give personalized feedback to everyone I rejected? No. That's just not a good ROI of my time.
Some people do that, and more power to them if somehow they have time to do that. I think UX people need to stop expecting that companies are responsible for telling them what they did wrong. Because part of my attitude towards this and sometimes I get really fired up is, if you can't figure out the UX of your resume, then how are you going to do the UX of like some checkout flow I need you to do? Like, yes, it's a different deliverable, but if the hierarchy on your resume sucks, then I'm going to think like, "God, what type of dashboard is this person going to make?"
[00:21:20] JH: Yes. It is really hard to separate that as somebody who's hired a lot of designers and looked at a lot of resumes, it's tough when you get a resume for that type of role, and it's like, "This is indecipherable. I can't tell what's important here." It's like, "It's hard for me to believe that you're a good designer. Maybe you are, but you're not putting your best foot forward, for sure."
[00:21:37] Sarah: Exactly. That's exactly what I mean. Then I know the listeners are probably thinking, "Okay. Well, where am I going to get this feedback if the companies won't give it to me? Life is not fair," blah, blah, blah. One trend we're seeing in the UX industry is this current obsession with mentorship, for lack of better phrasing. It's like, "The mentor network of this," and that, and the other.
That's nice that we are trying to connect each other and form relationships, et cetera, but I think a lot of people who pursue feedback and help through these networks may not realize that a lot of those people who are listed as mentors are currently in a UX Boot Camp or just graduated one, two weeks ago. This is the literal truth. It's like the lost leading the lost.
I think UX people need to look at it through less rose-colored glasses. I don't know if that's the right analogy, but like, think to yourself, "Who am I asking for feedback? Are they practically qualified to give me feedback? Do they have time to give me feedback?" Because I receive portfolios, resumes, et cetera, DM to me all the time, and it's like, "I don't have time to do this for you. PS, I have tons of hours of videos and tens of thousands of words of articles out there to help you review your own portfolio." I think that's like--
[00:23:19] Erin: "Be careful. Be careful who your heroes are. Oh, some heuristics, if that's such a thing and career as a product or just guiding principles on how to think about building your career as a product, in many cases, likely take you further than expert advice. Well, but since we have you as an expert to give us some advice, I am curious where is the best ROI on your time in terms of building, I guess assets to sell yourself?
We talked about building some profile in the portfolio, and then, of course, there's, who are we going to apply to? There's all these components of it. Where would you spend your time when you get started in this process of figuring out your next role? We've talked about the roadmap, what's important to get right? Do people still do resumes? Is that a thing? I don't know.
[00:24:11] Sarah: Well, I think the first thing is doing that career roadmap, whatever that means to you, it could be as simple as a 40-minute exercise. Without that, you don't have a compass to guide you with everything else. If you don't have a clear understanding of your strengths, your skills, your experience, where you want to go in the future, then your resume will likely not have as precise framing as it needs in order to stand out.
Assuming you have this roadmap, North Star, whatever you want to call it, I think to myself in terms of ROI, "Well, what do I need in order to start applying for jobs? I think you need a resume, you also need some file that will be able to let you showcase your work. I hesitate to use the word portfolio because everyone says like, "We should not require portfolios." It's like, "I don't really care what you call it, it's a presentation of your work," however that is.
It should be a decent UX, it should not be like a bunch of disorganized screenshots in a Google Drive somewhere with a password, and you don't give me the password. Thinking about what you need to apply, I would really start with that resume. Then if you nail your resume, you, theoretically by default, should have a pretty darn good LinkedIn too, because guess what? They're pretty much the same content.
[00:25:55] JH: Pretty similar, yes.
[00:25:57] Sarah: Then from there, I think you need to put together your work examples in some presentation. Now, there's the whole debate about should it be a PDF or a website, et cetera, and I have many articles on that, but I will say this, let's fast forward in this whole process. If you get called to an interview, to present a project, are you going to pull up a website browser and start scrolling through a bunch of web pages, or are you going to do a presentation?
Maybe I'm biased or just weird, but I think it's a better user experience to have a presentation. Plus, not to mention, it's faster, it's not reliant on Wi-Fi, in case you are doing an in-person interview and like the power goes out or something. People can read all my reasonings for that on an article I'll link you to. That portfolio, I think UX people just make up like, how many projects, the laws of UX portfolios, I'm sure there's--
[00:26:59] Erin: Right. Talk about the blind leading the blind. Who came up with these rules?
[00:27:03] Sarah: It's like there must be three presentations, and each one must be 1,900 words or something. I've seen people get hired with one presentation. I would say, put together one presentation, once you do one, creating the others will go faster than the first. If you have one good presentation and everything else we already talked about, you could start applying. Then, if you get an interview great, and in your downtime, add another project to your portfolio. That's how I would sequence it because you don't need to spend eight, nine months getting ready to apply because you're really missing out.
[00:27:50] JH: Yes. All right. Quick, awkward interruption here. It's fun to talk about user research, but you know what's really fun? Is doing user research, and we want to help you with that.
[00:28:00] Erin: We want to help you so much that we have created a special place. It's called useinterviews.com/awkward, for you to get your first three participants free.
[00:28:12] JH: We all know we should be talking to users more. We've went ahead and removed as many barriers as possible. It's going to be easy, it's going to be quick, and you're going to love it. Get out there and check it out.
[00:28:20] Erin: Then when you're done with that, go on over to your favorite podcasting app, and leave us a review, please.
[00:28:30] JH: I have a question or I guess like a hypothesis I have in my head. We've talked a lot like content designers and UX writers. There's a point there of using the language that your users use and knowing how to communicate with them and stuff. I have this belief that if you knew like this is my dream role, and you go find a couple job descriptions at like five legitimate companies that have that posting up.
You just went through them and reverse-engineered it, you'd be able to find a lot of the way on your resume or your LinkedIn that you should be talking about what you do that aligns with the way that people are hiring. I don't know if that's a good exercise or not, but that's always where my mind goes with what I might do, but I don't know if that's a waste of time, or if there's something to that?
[00:29:07] Sarah: No. That is exactly what we recommend. Look at the job description, see what they're looking for, and then tailor your resume and portfolio to that. The word tailor doesn't mean create a new one from scratch. It means to re-arrange the content in your resume and your portfolio, such that the things that reflect what they are looking for, really stand out and shine a spotlight on that.
Honest to goodness, that could be as simple as just rearranging bullet points on your resume, or like rewriting one or two because this is serendipitous. I'm hiring for this UX designer role right now and it's to work at an E-commerce company, and I honestly haven't looked at any of the resumes yet, but on the application we ask, "Tell us about your relevant experience based on the job description?" So many of the answers are like, "I am an empathetic designer who is passionate about helping change the world through design and insert Don Norman quote." It's like they all sound the same. I almost might do an article and cut and paste some of these and show how everyone just uses these ridiculous, touchy feely, weird ways to describe themselves. I'm like, "If you worked for an e-commerce company, tell me about that and give me an example of how you helped do X, Y, and Z in the checkout or the customer subscription area of the account section."
That's what I mean and I think I would speak for a lot of recruiters and hiring managers and say, "That's what they want you to do. They want you to connect." We need you to connect the dots between your previous experience and the job. I feel like I am literally giving people the opportunity to do this by asking, "Describe your relevant experience based on this role," and I'm just getting Steve Jobs quotes and stuff that sounds like it's from some laws of UX article.
[00:31:27] JH: It's almost like altitude. If you abstract it so far, you're 30,000 feet up. Everyone generalizes to the same stuff you're describing. If you're way too down in the weeds, you're describing minutiae of previous experiences that nobody can decipher. It's like you just got to find the middle ground somewhere, where it's like you can tell a unique story that's relevant to the role, but doesn't sound like everybody else or something like that.
[00:31:48] Sarah: Yes. In this example I am just dreaming that someone's going to say, "I worked at big commerce for three years and I did X, Y, and Z." I'm like, "Amazing."
[00:32:02] Erin: Right. Just answer the question.
[00:32:04] Sarah: Like, "I don't need a UX pep talk about how you're going to change the world, because listen to this. The jobs to be done thing, I as the person hiring, have a job that needs to be done. If you have the skills to do that job, then tell me the skills. Don't give me some quote that should be in a WeWork space."
[00:32:29] Erin: I'm thinking of, what is it? The bad user stories? Twitter, whatever?
[00:32:33] Sarah: Yes. Oh, I should take that.
[00:32:35] Erin: Yes. I was like, "As a recruiter, I would like to spend as much time as possible reading your flowery, aspirational--" Right. Exactly. Whatever.
[00:32:45] Sarah: Oh, my gosh. Totally. I should make some, "I'm not going to do this," but in my spare time, when I retire I'll make--
[00:32:53] Erin: The worst resume ever.
[00:32:54] Sarah: Yes.
[00:32:55] Erin: On the hiring side, I'm curious if you have a thought on this. Are recruiters, hiring managers, are they good at writing job descriptions? Do they know what they want? Are they making it easy for candidates or should people run away when they see a job description that's like, "We the UX, UI, PD, PM," whatever for--?
[00:33:15] Sarah: This is honestly one of the things I am trying to solve and I literally tweeted this two hours ago. It's no secret, job descriptions are not always that good. I think there's a couple of reasons for that. I think there's companies that don't really have UX teams that are starting to build their UX teams, therefore, they don't really understand UX, therefore, they probably just cut and pasted a job description based on Google results.
I think there's other companies that maybe are larger where people are just cutting and pasting, take the Google Doc, the last one, make a copy, shuffle some bullets, ready to go type things. Job descriptions are not always that great. One of the things I am trying to do with the job descriptions that we write is make it very clear what you will be doing in terms of responsibilities, but experience that would make you very qualified.
In this job description, we talk about e-commerce experience would be helpful et cetera. We also have these sections called, "You would be perfect for this role if," and, "You would not be a fit for this role if." Because, as a business owner, I look at the job description and I needed to do two jobs. I needed to attract the right candidates and let the wrong people know they should not apply.
That's how I think about it and maybe that sounds heartless or something, but it's looking at this from a business and time perspective. One person this morning emailed me. They applied for the job and they said, because one of the questions on the application is, do you have any questions for us, and they said, "The job description is very clear. I appreciate the user experience of the job description, clear and concise." My heart was like, "Oh, my God. Amazing."
[00:35:18] Erin: You get it.
[00:35:19] Sarah: It's not just the content of the job descriptions, I think it's also the literal design of the job descriptions because a lot of job descriptions look like a wall of text. Sometimes that's because the ATS system that they used to make it, for example, with bulleted lists, my number one pet peeve, they don't put spacing between each line item. I put a lot of care and time into making these really skimmable, scannable job descriptions with the hope that people are going to read it, so that they'll read the, "You're not a fit for this role if" and not apply if they don't have e-commerce experience.
[00:36:05] JH: I think one thing as you're thinking about how you land and your ideal role, a lot of it is, we've been talking about how you present yourself and put your best foot forward and make sure it's relevant to the role. It's also, the interview is going in both directions. You're interviewing the companies and the hiring managers as well. Is that a part of the stuff that you all work on?
[00:36:25] Sarah: Yes.
[00:36:25] JH: I know somebody in our team, Paulo, a PM. He was featured in one of Teresa Torres' product talk pieces about his criteria when he was interviewing. I had my own list of questions that I was going in and judging people on to make sure I landed in an environment that I thought would be good. How do you help people think about that side of things?
[00:36:42] Sarah: That is a big part of what we do. I 100% agree. The interview is not just about them interviewing you, you're interviewing them. I think even that framing alone, helps take the pressure off a little bit because I think it helps empower the candidates almost. Before anyone applies to a job, we have them create this, we call it a Career Value Criteria Document.
Basically, it's your deal breakers. It's like, "If you're looking for a partner, what are your deal breakers?" We have this deal breaker document that they create and it's really aimed to help them do two things. First of all, it's aimed to be a filter, so that they only apply to jobs that meet those criteria. Also, it helps give them a starting point of questions that they might ask during those interviews.
We also have a big document of questions that they could pick and choose from to ask, but so many people have said that deal breaker list helped them not apply to certain jobs. Or, a couple of people even ended up having multiple job offers and to make that decision of what job to take, they went back to that deal breaker list and their roadmap to think to themselves, "Based on job one, two or three, which one aligns with my values? Which one gives me that work life balance or sets me up for that goal I have in my career two years from now?"
I think that in interviews if you don't have a question for them, I'm obviously not speaking for every company recruiting, but to me, it's almost a yellow flag. You couldn't think of one question to ask me and sometimes it makes me think, did you even look at our product or check out our about page or anything?
[00:38:44] JH: Yes, 100%.
[00:38:45] Sarah: Companies make it so easy for you to go look on Medium or YouTube and find an article their design team wrote and say, "Hey, I read this article your team wrote. Can you tell me more about whatever the article was?" That would be amazing.
[00:39:01] Erin: Speaking of questions, I know it sounds like a lot of the work that you do is helping people ask good questions to figure themselves out and figure out where they want to go. What they like and don't like, and all this sort of stuff. I'm curious, either what are some of the most important questions to ask yourself, or what's a good framework for figuring out what are the right questions to ask yourself, to put yourself in a good spot for figuring out your next step?
[00:39:29] Sarah: That's a great question. I think when I started all this, one thing that really surprised me was how many people were joining this program who had 5, 6, 12, 15 years of experience. In hindsight, now it's very clear that the more experience you have, the trickier it is sometimes to figure out what your next move should be. Thinking of the experience and the journey of all those people through our Career Strategy Lab, I think that it really goes back to that roadmap. Doing the reflection of, "Where have I been in my career so far? When was I really fulfilled? When did I feel supported?" Or, "When did I feel I was really learning?" Going through the steps of mapping out that career journey map really.
I think that starts to connect all of those dots so you can think to yourself, "Where do I want to go in the future? I think if you just say to someone, "What do you want to be doing in two years?" It's such an open ended question. It's almost like this career journey map gives you LEGO pieces that you can start to play with and then it becomes clear what you could build in the future in terms of your career or the product of you.
[00:41:04] Erin: Do you recommend then focusing on, I guess, your past feelings and what made you feel positively, or the other things that are more, I guess, mental or practical, financial certainly or learning? Because learning can be an interesting one, which can make you feel a lot of feelings, right? Frustrated at the beginning, good once you've actually learned something. Anyway, figuring out, I guess what's important to you as you look back and reflect on how things have made you feel and how do you want to feel in the future and assessing that out.
[00:41:39] Sarah: Yes. I think this is one of the parts of this deal breaker list we have people make, but I really originally created that deal breaker list for the jobs you're looking for because so many people only look for jobs through the lens of what is this job title and what is the salary? You don't have to be living under a rock to know that UX job titles pretty much mean nothing. They change from company to company, so who cares what you're called?
I created this to help people stop focusing on those things and focus exactly what you said, Erin, on all those other things. I think there's, how would we phrase this? There are necessary things such as, you know you have to make X amount of money, or you know that you need to have healthcare or whatever. These table stakes survival things.
I think you can look at it through opportunities for professional development, and maybe that goes into like, "Are they giving you a conference budget?" Or, "How much mentorship do you need from a boss? This role we're hiring for you are going to be a UX team of one as an individual contributor. Therefore, someone maybe just graduated from a boot camp and needs someone to triple check their work for everything, it's probably not going to work out."
I think it's understanding that your needs in a manager, in a company, what skills you hope to acquire, team culture. Remote, not remote, hybrid, et cetera, size of team. Even in the industry, those are all things that people really need to think about so that you don't accept a job just because it gave you some unicorn title and then three months later you think, "Oh, oh man. What did I do that for?" You know?
[00:43:34] JH: Yes. I think the money part and just all of that stuff is, it's so important to do ahead of time because I think once you're later in the process, it's really hard to be objective about it. I'm just thinking again from personal experience, but did some exercises before I joined user interviews and backed into like, "What's the threshold for my wife and I to be comfortable and be able to start a family, and stuff? What do I want out of a role?"
Then I found myself with two offers that were very different, and one of which had more money attached to it. I don't think you can make that decision if you don't have some of that stuff up front. You know what I mean? Because, I think otherwise you just talk yourself into the, "Well, more money is good, so just do this." You know what I mean? It's hard to put all those factors together. I would really encourage people to do that.
[00:44:15] Sarah: There was an article and I forget who wrote it. I want to say it's one of the guys from Y Combinator, so I'm not going to try and attribute it.
[00:44:26] JH: Sure. Yes.
[00:44:27] Sarah: Yes. It was this essay and it was along the lines of, "In your career, there's a time to earn and there's a time to learn." I've always remembered that because it's just such a simple filter and I think it's something to keep in mind for everyone because there could be times in your career where you have two different opportunities, but if you think to yourself, "This other job is going to pay me less, but I get to get experience in this industry, or doing this type of research, or working with this size of team, or something," that could be a good career move for two years or something like that.
[00:45:13] JH: Yes. It's super personal. There's obviously some privilege and all this other stuff in there, but you can back into your own situation of, given all these factors in my life, I have student debt, right. I have this or that. What do I need to be happy? Then you can optimize from there.
[00:45:27] Sarah: Exactly. Yes. I'm glad you mentioned. We all have times in our career where we just have to take the job. I think if you do have these other things in mind, I think it just helps you find the right companies to apply to. You don't end up somewhere and feel trapped and not want to put the time and energy into yet another job search.
[00:45:57] JH: A quick thing I had was just, we've talked about all the positives of treating your career like a product. Are there any downsides or things to be mindful of?
[00:46:05] Sarah: That's a great question. I might say get back to me in two years or something. I have not heard any negative feedback from people who are following what we teach and things that I guess if they do have negative feedback, maybe they haven't told me. I think maybe the one downfall or risk would be for people that-- How would we phrase this?
For people who are super, super data driven or who have to follow the process step by step by step and are super rigid, maybe this might not be for you because so many UX people especially early in their career, maybe you've noticed this as well, it's almost people learning UX are learning a UX assembly line.
One of the challenges with that is that, you don't develop the muscle to be flexible and know, "Maybe we should stay a little bit longer in the research phase and not just stay here for two weeks because so and so told me it has to be two weeks." I think for people that are not able to be flexible and bend the rules a little, maybe this wouldn't be the right approach for you. I don't know. That's maybe a stretch. I think it works for everyone that I've worked with so far.
[00:47:39] Erin: Yes. Yes. You can't two by two matrix your way to every decision in life. The framework works. Ask yourself these questions. These are clearly good and important things to do, but it also doesn't mean at the end of the day, you shouldn't listen to your gut. After you've gone through all of that, I think the exercise is important. Whether you end up following the framework to the tee in the end or not. Right.
[00:48:06] Sarah: Yes. You made me think of a good example. In this roadmap exercise, we have a bunch of little activities that result in the roadmap. Sometimes I find out, people have been stuck on exercise two or something and I'm like, "Why did you just stay on the hamster wheel of exercise two for a month? Why didn't you just think to yourself, is this a good ROI of my time, I'm going to keep going?" Or, "That Sarah's making me do exercise too." I'm not making you do anything, but it's that idea of, if something isn't working for you, figure out how to adapt it. This is not a paint by number situation.
[00:48:48] Erin: It's your life.
[00:48:48] Sarah: It's your life.
[00:48:53] JH: There is science too, all right. In UX work and in product work. You need the frameworks and stuff, but there still is some judgment and unquantifiable stuff that goes into it too.
[00:49:02] Sarah: Yes.
[00:49:02] Erin: Sarah, parting advice for our listeners. What should they know? If we've made it this far, what have we not covered?
[00:49:09] Sarah: I think that the one thing I would impart on people is to remember that your education is never over, and you need to take ownership of that in your career. Because I think that, many managers and your peers in your company, et cetera, even if they might be well intentioned, they might not have the time, energy, space, et cetera, to do that for you.
I think that's why I'm really passionate about helping people really own their UX careers. By learning how to do some of the things we teach in this Career Strategy Lab, I feel that helps people own and feel empowered in the job search. I hope that that confidence and ownership really translates to other parts of their career as well. You can't rely on anyone else for success except yourself.
[00:50:18] Erin: I like the messages of self-reliance. Like we were saying, it's your life. These are some tools you can use, hopefully get yourself in a place you want to be in.
[00:50:26] Sarah: Exactly.
[00:50:27] Erin: Yes. Sarah, thanks for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
[00:50:29] Sarah: Thank you. This is an awesome discussion.
[00:50:31] JH: Yes. It's been a ton of fun.
[00:50:34] Erin: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences brought to you by User Interviews.
[00:50:39] JH: Theme music by Fragile Gang.
VP, Growth & Marketing
Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.