“Designers heaven”… I remember the moment a close friend had sold me on the idea of moving to San Francisco. He had recently landed a coveted Product Design role at Pinterest, and although I was getting ready to settle down and live the life of a Melbourne-coffee-snob, the notion that I might be able to find a home amongst the tech-elite in SF was compelling AF.
At the time, I was living a pretty good life in a city I loved, a city with the some of the highest standards of living in the world, a fantastic food scene, and undoubtedly the best coffee on the planet. I had a regular full-time role as Design Director for a mid-size consulting company (we specialized in Agile software design), and I assumed that my path was neatly laid out in front of me — all I had to do was stay the course.
But maybe its the designer-in-me, always questioning (and almost never content), or perhaps the curious voice in my head was just too loud. Either way, I decided to throw a little caution to the wind and organize a two-week fact-finding mission to San Francisco. What did I have to lose?
Leading up to the trip, I knew I needed to get a few things organized. I had to research companies and start-ups, create a network of contacts, put together a portfolio, and rehearse my pitch. I also had to spend a reasonable amount of time understanding the various VISA and immigration pathways that were available for me at the time. H1-b, E3, A0. The Australian E3 was the easiest route if you met all the requirements (University degree, six years or more experience in your given field, etc).
I decided to book my flights three months in advance to give myself time to prepare. I set myself a goal and told myself to do at least one thing every night that would move me closer to San Francisco — Even if it was just a simple mockup for my portfolio, one line of code for my website, finalizing copy for project case-studies, or understanding who looked after internal design recruiting at company X. As long I was doing something, that’s all that mattered.
Feeling apprehensive but somewhat optimistic I landed in SF mid-October 2014 with a portfolio of work that I was proud of, a shopping list of companies and contacts, and a Linkedin Premium account set up and ready to go.
I arrived on a Friday night with plans to attend the Treasure Island festival the next day (priorities right). It was a great introduction to SF, and I recall watching the sunset behind a silhouetted city while listening to my favorite Aussie artist Chet Faker serenade the crowd into the evening with his rendition of No Diggity. It was a perfect start to my two-week vision-quest (I mean career move).
Nothing prepared me for the interviews I experienced over the following two weeks. Sure, I had read some Medium articles that explained the process — 1 hour long presentations, one-on-one’s, etc, but I didn’t expect the volume, speed, analysis, and criticism that ensued.
Professionally, I felt like I was hitting all the high notes. I was excited that companies like Google X, Airbnb, Facebook, Pinterest, & Frog Design were all opening their doors and finding time to chat. VP’s and even Co-founders were attending my presentations — Joe Gebbia, Co Founder of Airbnb, turned up to my interview dressed as Jiro the Sushi chef (it was Halloween that day)!
Personally, though, it was a roller-coaster of emotions. I don’t think I had ever experienced such unfiltered, direct, and at times, hurtful criticism. I’m a big fan of Kim Scott’s book on Radical Candor, and I’m also very familiar with justifying my process and decisions as a designer (it’s part of your job after all). But at the end of each day it felt like I had just been dissected on a table in front of my own eyes — poked and prodded in an effort to find some elusive design-formula, and then discarded until further notice.
It was brutal :(
I often feel like the interview process for designers in silicon valley is a little over the top tbh. I know that hiring a designer is difficult, and the right decision can often lead to the success of a product, while the opposite is also true. However, the process is so strenuous for candidates that I wonder how any designer can actually land a job (or even want a job at the end of it all). You’re made to jump through hoops, perform design tests, present to panels, and run a gauntlet of one-on-one interviews (not to mention the dissection part above), all with a seemingly arbitrary decision at the end.
So I decided to look beyond the tedious nature of design interviews. I know I wasn’t ready for the barrage of criticism and analysis, but I was prepared to throw myself back into the process, after all, thats why I was in SF in the first place! Every night I’d sit in my Airbnb rental in Bernal Heights, go over my notes and think about how I could have been better that day. I adjusted my narrative and tweaked my Keynote based on the feedback, and most importantly, reflected on my previous experience, my perspective on design (both theoretical and practical), and my past career successes and failures — My personal story-arch.
On the last day in San Francisco, I had my final interview with Airbnb, a full day on site. I remember feeling like I had nothing to lose at this point. I was excited, nervous, confident, and giddy as hell. I spent the night before going over all my notes from the previous two weeks of interviews, rehearsing, learning, making sense of it all. It was Halloween (Joe was dressed as Jiro, remember). The day kicked off with brief introductions and a presentation that went well. I spoke in detail about my design philosophy, I went deep on one specific project and talked at length about my design process, my experience in a cross-functional team, and the importance of collaboration in the context of design. Being Halloween, everyone was in a playful mood that day, and I think that made a huge difference in making me feel comfortable and welcome.
I left Airbnb HQ at 4 pm sharp and headed straight to the airport to board a 16-hour direct flight back to Melbourne. At that point the whole trip had felt like a dream, I couldn’t believe the people I had met and the companies I’d been invited to — I was so exhausted that I slept for almost two days straight when I got home.
A one-way ticket
I can’t say that there are many times in my life I’ve bought a one-way ticket somewhere. I think this was my second (the first being from Sydney to Melbourne, but that doesn’t count, right?).
I received a call from Airbnb a couple of weeks after returning to Australia. It was good news; I had landed a role as Principal Product Designer at their SOMA HQ in San Francisco. I was over the moon!
Everything I had set my sights on over the previous few months had paid off, and I was ready to propel my life into a new direction. I sold everything I had, resigned from my job, and finalized a two year E3 working VISA. My entire life was packed into two suitcases. Literally.
Fast forward a few years, I’ve had the opportunity to rub shoulders with folks I consider the most influential designers in history, and work alongside some of the most inspirational people (from researchers, engineers, and poets, to leaders, revolutionaries, and anarchists). I’ve been blessed to work on some of the most compelling, complicated, and impactful products of our generation. While at the same time continuing to push myself to do things I never thought capable of doing, continuing to learn from my successes and failures (there have been many failures), and never really seeing this as an end-goal — even after 15 years in the design industry, but rather, a new chapter, by design.