I was recently interviewed by a design/multimedia student for his career development class in university. This is how it went.
Q What is your name?
A Vy-Shane Sin Fat
Q What is your title?
A Development Lead
Q How long have you been in this career?
A Six years
Q What duties do you perform?
A In addition to programming, responsibilities are: managing the activities of the development team, project management, scheduling, implementing development and deployment processes for the team, staff mentoring, requirements analysis, functional specifications, and some server administration.
What a mouthful. In a nutshell, I create stuff, and I facilitate the creation of stuff.
Q What tools, hardware and software do you use?
A Hardware: MacBook Pro, iPad, iPhone, few servers.
Software: OS X, FreeBSD, Linux, VMWare ESXi, VMWare Fusion, Vim, Subversion, CVS, Mercurial, JIRA, Confluence, PostgreSQL, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Fireworks, Omnigraffle, Omniplan, Xcode, Interface Builder, MS Office.
Q What education did you receive and did it help you on this job?
A I studied a Bachelor of Communication, majoring in Computer Science and Interactive Multimedia Technologies. The university course helped me learn how to learn and helped me identify what I needed to learn. Most practical things that I do day to day in my work, I learnt by myself.
Q If you went to school specifically for this position, what did you not learn at school that you had to learn on the job? In other words what do you know now you wish you had learned before you started your career?
A I wish that I'd taken some management courses. I received technical training in uni, but had to learn the soft skills on my own.
Q Do you think that your employer was looking for someone with your specific degree? For instance, I have seen a lot of openings for web designers, but they all require work experience and a degree. If your position required experience, how did you get the experience. In other words, how did you get your foot in the door in your career?
A My employer was looking for someone with my specific degree. As a general hiring rule, I also tend to look for someone who has a degree. This is only a general rule and I'm willing to make exceptions. University courses provide some theoretical grounding that self taught individuals often lack. A very simplistic example would be a self taught designer who knows Photoshop inside out, but who is weak in Typography. It takes a dedicated individual to seek out the less tangible, deeper and less immediately accessible topics. These individuals do exist, and I'm willing to make exceptions.
It's hard to land the first job. Most companies prefer to hire people with experience. In order to get around this, work on your portfolio while in uni. Build up a body of work that demonstrates your skills. This is especially important for designers. I would hire the designer with the better portfolio over a designer who's got better grades. Start some personal projects. Start a blog where you showcase knowledge that you can't list on your resume. A resume can only fit so many words. A prospective employer will look at your blog.
Be hungry. I was working at Subway in my final year in uni. I was getting paid $8.50 and hour, before tax. I wasn't too fussed about raking in the money when I applied for my first “real” job. I just wanted to get my foot in the door and I said as much. The money will come soon enough. Be confident that once you're in you'll be able to show your worth. In this industry you can easily double your pay within a few years of starting out.
Q How important is a portfolio versus a degree? If a portfolio is the most important aspect, how do you put together a professional portfolio? For instance I probably had the best portfolio in my class, and I received all A’s for my work, but I still am not confident that it’s at a professional level.
A I personally think that a portfolio is more important than a degree, especially for designers. The best way to put together a portfolio is to get involved in side projects that try to solve real problems. For example, design a logo for your uncle's restaurant. Design a poster for a local charity. Get to work on real stuff rather than just concepts. Design doesn't happen in a vacuum. You don't want your interviewer to go “That looks nice”. You want her to go “That's a clever solution. You've convinced me.”
Confidence is very important. You don't just show a portfolio. You talk through it. When showing off a project, you're describing the context. You're stating the goals that you set out to achieve. You're describing the different options that you considered. You're describing your ultimate solution. You're saying how the goals were met. Maybe you have some data (Sales increased by 20% during the campaign). You're defending your choices. You're selling your work. If you feel that your portfolio is not to a “professional” level of polish, concentrate on showing that you understood the problem, and sell your solution.
Q What are the fun and difficult parts of your job?
A The fun part is all about building things. Anything that involves creativity is heaps of fun. The most difficult part is estimation and project management. Software/Web projects are pure thought works. It's is very hard to estimate how long a big project will take to build, and it is very hard to keep it on track once a timeframe and budget have been set.
Q Do any of the companies or company you worked for offer future training once you’re hired, and possible advancement within the company? How do you view your career and industry? Are there any major problems with it?
A One of the companies sent me to a conference and offered to send me to a management course. Conferences are great. You come back with new enthusiasm, new ideas, and new contacts.
Advancement is really very much up to you. The easiest way to advance within a company is to give your boss peace of mind. It's a simple concept and there are two parts to it. The first part is to be dependable. If you're given a task, you do it within the deadline and you do it well. Your boss shouldn't have to check your work or micromanage you. The second part is to be willing to take on more responsibility. Your boss will only be too happy to delegate some of her responsibilities to you. She's got enough on her mind. If you're dependable and willing, you can have it. More responsibility equals more value equals better role equals more pay. When she leaves or moves up, she will recommend you as next in line.
The IT/Web industry is very young. We wear jeans and t-shirts to work. We value meritocracy over seniority. If you're good, it is easy to increase your salary very quickly. However, you need a big and constant time investment in order to stay relevant. It's easy to do when you're single and fresh out of uni. However, you're still expected to find the time to do it even after you get married and have kids. I'm not married yet and I don't have kids. However, even girlfriends get grumpy when you're in front of your computer for four hours after diner, reading about the silver bullet du jour.
Q Do you think it has a healthy future? What skills or programs would you recommend learning if you do foresee a change?
A The creative industry has a healthy future. In the grand scheme of things, IT/Web is really just starting out. Even then, for many of the problems that we set out to solve, we've already moved from trying to make things possible to trying to make things better. We've moved from trying to allow people to manage their calendars on their computers to trying to come up with more intuitive interfaces for those calendars. Check out the competition between RSS readers for the iPad. Most of them have nailed the basic features like feed management, article download, sync and offline reading. They are now competing on UX and there's an explosion of innovation in that space. It's a great time to be a designer. I would recommend learning UX. Interactive design is the next logical progression in design. This is what differentiated the iPhone from the other phones in 2007. This is already how software is competing with each other. We're moving beyond feature sets.
Get an iPad if you don't already have one. You may have read everything there is to read about tablets and multitouch, but until you immerse yourself into a new medium, you won't get it. You need to get it at a subconscious level. Only then will you suddenly think of a novel way to design user interaction while you're in the shower. As a designer, get an iPad. Not because you need it for X software or for Y use case. Get it because you need to understand the medium thoroughly. The latest medium is multitouch. This is where all the interesting stuff is happening. This is where people are still experimenting and discovering new things. This is also where you're likely to get paid more. Be ahead of the curve. Now, why an iPad and not an Android device? Well, the iPad has a head start, and the software is already moving from trying to make things possible to trying to make things better. If you're looking for inspiration and innovation, you're more likely to find it there.
Learn the soft skills. Become a good salesperson. As a designer, you're constantly selling. You're selling yourself to a prospective client. You win the project and you're then selling your design to the client. Your client accepts your design and you're now selling their products.