How a Design Bootcamp Changed my Life

A few years ago I pivoted by career by doing a full-stack UX design bootcamp — one of the best decisions of my life! I’ve been asked many times about my bootcamp experience by others also considering user experience design, and so I hope sharing my story will help.

What the heck is UX?

A little bit about me — I grew up with traditional immigrant parents who believed in three career paths: medicine, law, or engineering. In other words they wanted stability, and they helped me become excellent at math and science. But I also loved art, and got offered a small but exclusive scholarship if I chose to purse an art-related degree after high school. If only there was a career path that would let me exercise my artistic eye with financial job security…

I ended up studying Industrial Engineering at the University of Michigan (go blue!) — and I absolutely loved it! After graduating, I started working at IBM as a technology consultant — and absolutely hated it. But fortunately for me, one of my projects at IBM was developing a suite of out-of-the-box enterprise mobile apps. While I wasn’t doing user experience design on the project (I was more of a business analyst), I met some incredibly talented designers and fell in love with their role.

Testing the waters

I first tried to transition into user experience within IBM. I asked my manager, who was a software engineer by trade, for advice and he recommended I read this book:

Experienced designers reading this will know this is a bit of a red flag — while this book is great at explaining design project management and the “design-as-a-service” model, it doesn’t provide a deep, foundational understanding of beyond the user interface (personally I think The Design of Everyday Things is better beginner resource). After a few more unfruitful attempts, I decided that for me IBM wasn’t going to be the place where I learned how to be a designer.

Taking the plunge

I started looking at university programs, went to UX meet-ups in Chicago, and ultimately decided to enroll in a design bootcamp. Hedging my bets, I took a 3-month leave of absence to enroll full-time in Designation, a relatively young (this was in 2014) full-stack design bootcamp in Chicago. The bootcamp had three focus areas:

I was attracted to Designation because of it’s full-stack approach — although I knew I wanted to be a designer, from my time at IBM I knew being familiar with other disciplines like research and engineering leads to better end products. The instructors at Designation were incredibly talented and driven, and a lot of the skills that I learned I still use in my job today. The other students I met had diverse backgrounds, and many were making drastic career changes like myself.

One of the best takeaways was the real-world experience we gained through a project for a local Chicago start-up. We worked with a client, performed research with real users, and turned over deliverables that were actually implemented by the start-up. This was essentially free labor…but was also one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in my career thus far.

Throughout the program each student worked on their individual portfolio. I finished my portfolio just as the program wrapped and started applying immediately, and it took me about a month of interviewing before I received my first offer. Instead of going back to IBM as a consultant, I decided to take a formal UX job at United Airlines designing the booking and planning experience for web and mobile.

The other side of the interview table

A few years later, I’ve now interviewed many candidates coming straight from design bootcamps. My main concern is always real-world experience —many interviewees only present work initiated by an educational prompt with conditions that don’t often reflect the real-world. I’d encourage interviewees to also present work that shows how they operated on projects with real-life implications.

Another tip: be clear on what work you performed in a group project. In bootcamps everyone is given a chance to perform certain tasks because everyone needs to learn. But for an interview, your audience wants to know more about your skills and accomplishments — not your group members’.

Choosing the right bootcamp

I chose Designation because at the time it seemed to be a smaller, more intimate teaching environment than other bootcamps (and it was significantly cheaper). And for me, being able to specialize in UX but also learn about engineering and research was critical in making me the designer I am today.

Some parting advice

With my bootcamp experience I found that “you get what you give.” It was hard work and long days, but I have no regrets and truly feel that I have my dream career now :) I hope this helps — good luck!

Interaction designer @Google | Previously and @UnitedAirlines