How I found a UX job after being laid off during a pandemic

November 15, 2020

I always appreciate learning about the journeys other people go through, everything from how they got started in an industry to the inside story of how a company was launched. Although perhaps smaller and less epic, I figured I’d share my own story of finding a new UX job during a potentially challenging time.

(If you’re short on time you can also just skip to my lessons learned.)

Where this story started

Before getting into the details I’ll just share a bit of context around where I was at in my career. I have about seven years of experience in the UX world and had only worked at two companies prior to being laid off: Pearson for the last ~5.5, and a small UX research consulting group for ~1.5 before that.

While at Pearson I worked on a variety of general web application features for a few years before spearheading a design system effort. You can read more about the details in my portfolio.

In my yearly performance reviews I generally received exclusively positive feedback, was promoted once, and twice received relatively significant raises. I had the impression there wasn’t much additional room for me to grow upwards in the company, although my direct manager was encouraging of my ambitions when we would discuss them.

Getting laid off

I dialed in to a video call on May 12 along with the rest of my immediate team to learn that our group was being let go as part of a larger restructuring of the design organization within Pearson. They didn’t tie this directly to COVID (although I’m sure it contributed to some extent), and in fact I wasn’t all that surprised as we had gotten a new VP-level design leader who seemed intent on making many changes. Reading the tea leaves he dropped didn’t paint a bright picture for the design system team. My direct manager had a similar impression and found a new job, quitting about three weeks before our team was downsized.

In retrospect, I should have been paying closer attention to the moves of the company and been a little more proactive about keeping tabs on what other options were out there.

Fortunately, Pearson was pretty generous with severance terms. We were all still officially employed for another month, although management was clear that they didn’t expect us to really work during that time. With my five years of seniority I would get 10 weeks of severance and subsidized COBRA after the final termination date.

Starting the job hunt

I had a lot of work cut out for me since I had done a terrible job of keeping my work history up to date. In fact, I essentially needed to recreate my entire portfolio from scratch. I spent the first few weeks trawling through my old work files, remembering what I had done and figuring out how to assemble the pieces into a compelling story. I decided to focus on just a few portfolio case studies, but to go pretty deep in each of them. I based this on some advice I found on Twitter, and on my own experience reviewing other people’s portfolios. I also had some feedback that hiring managers would be quickly scanning for key terms, so I decided to structure each case study with a condensed summary of the major points at the top, and the full analysis below.

Putting together each study took about a week and a half. I didn’t want to apply to new jobs without being prepared to put my best foot forward, but I felt pressure to start applying as quickly as possible. This was a fairly stressful time, as it felt like I wasn’t making much progress. Looking back, I’m glad I invested in creating a solid foundation that served me well in later applications and interviews, although it was frustrating at the time.

Sending in applications

Once I felt confident in my portfolio I started sending out applications. I mostly found jobs on LinkedIn and Built In Colorado. It was at this point that I regretted not investing more time in building a larger network in the industry. I know from previous experience that having a connection to a hiring manager makes a significant difference versus sending in a cold application, but I didn’t have much of a choice. I did try to make the most of the people I did know by using LinkedIn’s feature that searches for any 2nd-degree connections I had with each company I applied to. I think this definitely helped in several cases, and I recommend taking the time to look up potential contacts and ask for quick introductions.

Most applications asked for a resume and cover letter. I wrote cover letters for every application, even when they were optional, because I thought it would increase my chances and was a good opportunity to point out why I was especially interested in a particular role or how I had some uniquely relevant experience. I didn’t get strong feedback on how effective my cover letters were overall. It certainly would have saved a lot of time to skip them, as it generally took one to two days to get them into a state I was happy with. Still, I didn’t want to risk losing out on a role by omitting this step.

At first, the cover letters were very excruciating to write (humble-bragging about yourself can be kind of exhausting), but over time I was able to reuse paragraphs and major sections, making the task easier. I also felt like I hit a higher level of quality in my later cover letters as I was able to make small tweaks based on feedback from interviews and became more comfortable writing about myself.

Results

All told, I applied directly to about 25 roles and had recruiters submit my résumé to about 5 others. Out of the roles I applied to myself, I never heard back from 7, was immediately rejected from 7, and progressed to at least one stage in the process with 11 companies. I only progressed beyond the first stage with about 4 companies.

Time between application and first response varied fairly significantly, with the shortest response being the same day (a rejection, sadly) and the longest being 34 days. The mean response time was 15 days, the median was 12 days. Five companies took 20 days or longer to reply.

Interviewing

My first contact with most companies was a casual conversation with a recruiter. I felt less pressure about these basic phone screens and they were a good chance to learn more about the company and the role, since job descriptions could sometimes be a little vague. This was also a time for the recruiters to mention any quirks about the role, such as their remote work policy. The most common questions I was asked in these conversations were:

  1. What are you looking for?
  2. Tell me about yourself?
  3. Why are you leaving?

I’d definitely recommend taking a few minutes to think about how you might answer these questions in the context of the specific company and role. For the third question, I always mentioned that I had been laid off as part of a larger restructuring (e.g. I wasn’t the only one let go). You definitely don’t want to start off by lying to the recruiter. I also tried to give some additional depth, such as mentioning my former manager and mentor had quit and I wanted to find a new boss I could learn from. As far as I could tell, being laid off never had an adverse effect on my applications, and I didn’t really expect it to.

From there the interviews would typically progress to meeting with the hiring manager and/or other members of the team. Depending on the company these could go in different directions. Some focused heavily on behavioral questions, others wanted to talk more about my design process and approach. I would try to ask recruiters for as much information as possible before going into these interviews, typically by saying something like: “what will they be looking for, and how do you recommend I best prepare myself?” This usually helped set me on the right course as I prepped. Depending on the company you can also learn a fair bit about their hiring practices by googling around and reading forums.

Most interviews took a traditional form where I just answered a variety of questions. Twice I had little design thinking/whiteboarding exercises, and once I had an app critique. For anything non-standard it was very helpful to gather as much information as I could beforehand and develop a bit of a framework for how I would approach the various prompts.

My general interview prep advice is:

  • Treat the first few interviews of your overall job search as practice. You’re going to be rusty, so just do your best and then review your performance afterwards to see what adjustments you want to make. I didn’t really do any practice interviews, but I probably should have before doing a real one.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk yourself up. This comes with the practice of doing a few interviews. For most of us, most of the time, we’re trying to be team players and diffuse praise back towards our colleagues. Now is not the time to be humble. Take ownership of your accomplishments and the results you drove, even if indirectly. I gradually realized I could take a pretty strong stance without coming anywhere near being too arrogant or disingenuous.
  • Think through some behavioral scenarios ahead of time, and write down your answers, at least in bullet points. Even if your interview isn’t strictly based on behavioral questions, I found it quite helpful to have several stories I could tell depending on the question. It’s also much easier to remember your past experience when you’re relaxed at home, and not stressed in front of an interviewer.

How did COVID impact things?

I didn’t get a ton of feedback on how much the Covid-19 pandemic affected the market, probably partly because I hadn’t actively looked for work in quite a while and therefore didn’t have much to compare it to. Especially in tech, it depends a lot on the specific company and industry. Some companies I applied to were growing like crazy and positively affected by the shift away from physical spaces and interactions, others did admit to general belt-tightening. I never felt like I couldn’t find jobs to apply to, though. I’m not really sure if things were more competitive due to more designers being on the market.

As far as the effect on the actual process it was about what you’d expect: a lot of video calls. Pretty much every company was working fully remotely for the foreseeable future, and many said they were either planning to stay that way or open to employees continuing to work from home.

Chatting over video generally worked alright. In-person would have allowed for a little better read on the room, I think, but I was able to establish pretty good rapport with most interviewers. Make sure you have a semi-professional space to call from and use headphones with a separate mic to avoid audio interference.

Getting hired

Ironically the job I wound up accepting is one I never submitted an application for. I had applied to several different roles at Amazon using a referral from a former colleague. While none of those jobs panned out, I now had a profile in their system and was eventually contacted by a recruiter who, I believe, found my information by searching for someone with experience in design systems.

After going through the full interview process I eventually received an offer and accepted it on October 2, making the full job search a 4 month and 20 day ordeal.


Lessons learned

I had a lot of takeaways from this experience and intend to do several things differently in the future. Here are my top tips:

1. Keep a work journal

One of the biggest pain points, especially early on, was updating my portfolio after years of neglect. I very much wish I had at least kept a basic list of notes that could inform the more polished portfolio case studies. In my research for portfolio best practices I came across this article on A List Apart which recommends keeping a document of bullet points about your accomplishments from the previous week, including any portfolio artifacts. This basic source of content can then be refined down into a case study when you need to update your portfolio.

2. Prep for questions

Along a similar vein, I had a little trouble thinking of scenarios or stories to tell for certain behavioral questions. I would tag entries in your work journal that might make good stories for interview questions you might expect to get in the future. For me, I struggled with questions like “tell me about a time you failed”, since I don’t tend to think of my work in such black and white terms. If I was reviewing events regularly it would be easier to identify applicable situations as they came up, rather than comb through the memory banks months or years later.

Here’s a list of questions I tried to prepare for:

  1. What are you looking for?
  2. Walk me through your background? (2 — 4 minutes)
  3. Why are you leaving?
  4. Biggest strength/weakness? (Especially tied to your particular skills or the job you are applying for.)
  5. Tell me about your design process?
  6. What was a tough conversation, conflict, or challenge you had around getting someone to help you with something?
  7. How have you responded to larger changes outside of your control?
  8. What’s a time you changed your mind?
  9. When have you failed and how did you deal with it/learn from it?
  10. When have you had to be strategic with your time or resources in order to meet priorities?
  11. How have you persuaded people at work?
  12. What’s your proudest professional accomplishment?

3. Expect an emotional roller coaster

Getting laid off is an extremely disruptive experience, and job searching as you watch your savings dwindle adds a whole other layer of stress. Beyond the larger scale burden, I also experienced smaller scale fluctuations in mood as I would find a particularly exciting job opportunity or would be rejected from a job I felt eminently qualified for. Some days I felt very discouraged and almost reconsidered whether UX was the industry for me. Other days I would find the perfect job and start building up how great it would be in my mind. Then a rejection would dash my hopes and start the process all over again.

If you’re job searching without current employment you just need to accept that you will be riding this roller coaster and make concrete plans to help yourself deal with it. For me, this meant getting outside when I could, taking a day off to ride my bike or a long weekend for a camping trip. Coming back from a few days unplugged always helped me reset my perspective a bit and return to a more grounded mental baseline. It was tough sometimes to really take time off from job searching, as I felt like I needed to put 110% into the effort until something came through, but I had to recognize this wasn’t a sustainable path for me.

Taking care of your mental state probably looks different from my approach. Whatever works for you, just do it. Block off some days and invest the time in yourself. Even if you miss applying to one or two jobs because of it, you need to build a sustainable personal foundation that will get you through the stress and pressure.

4. Evaluate and focus on your unique strengths and experiences

As I applied to more jobs and had more interviews I started gaining a sense of how competitive my skillset was for various roles. I felt like even generic “UX Designer” roles tended to have at least a few specific areas of expertise that hiring managers were looking for. Some wanted extensive SaaS experience, others an emphasis on B2C products or a deep background in native mobile design. Often I only really learned the full extent of the preferences once I started talking with the recruiter or hiring manager.

Going in to my job search I considered myself a relatively experienced all-around designer. I had an extensive background in design systems but didn’t want to pigeon-hole myself as just a design system guru. I also didn’t fully appreciate how much deeper my knowledge was in this area than the average designer. Eventually, I realized I was getting much more traction with jobs that specifically involved design system work. Instead of diluting my unique experience by trying to show how it applied to more generic scenarios, I could lean into my expertise and take pride in all the details I worked hard on over the last few years.

My big takeaway from this was that it’s easier to sell yourself as really great in one or two areas than to try and be all things to all people. Even if you are a quick learner and could do well in a variety of roles, it can be hard to get others to believe that if you don’t already have some depth to back it up. Targeting smaller niches where you can paint a uniquely impressive picture makes it much easier for hiring managers to know if you’re a fit or not.

Going forward, I’ve learned that I need to be a little more strategic about the experience I’m collecting. Do I want to continue down this path towards design system expertise? Or is there another domain I’d like to work in during my career? Instead of just taking the experience that falls in my lap, moving forward I’ll pay more attention for opportunities to proactively collect the experience I want to have.

5. Test your market, even if you’re content

I was relatively happy and content in my role at Pearson, and never really looked for or applied to jobs until after I was laid off. In retrospect, this was a pretty big mistake. In going through my job search — reading job descriptions, talking with recruiters and hiring managers, writing cover letters — I learned a lot about what the designer market looks like and how my background measured up. By not testing the waters I had ignored all of this valuable information over the last few years. In the future, I think I will try to apply to interesting jobs every year or two, even if I feel fully content in my current role. Gathering information from the larger design market would help me evaluate where I’m spending my time and validate that I’m on the career trajectory I want to follow.


Looking back

Overall, my job search this summer easily cracks my top three most stressful experiences ever, but in the end I feel good about how everything turned out. It shifted how I think about my career, has inspired me to take a more active role in charting my path, and taught me about the practical steps required to do just that. I’m writing all of this down partly to serve as a reminder to myself for the future, but also to share what I’ve learned with the larger design community. I hope this deep dive into one person’s experience can help you, wherever you’re at in your career. If you have any questions, feel free to say hi!

— Parker

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