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Building a UX Portfolio to Get Hired, With Sarah Doody | The Ironhack Podcast

On the Ironhack Podcast, Sarah Doody tells us about UX career coaching in Career Strategy Lab, and gives valuable networking tips.

You’re reading an interview with Sarah Doody, straight from The Ironhack Podcast. Every week our hosts, Tim and Dan, catch up with Ironhack alumni, teachers, and other tech professionals for industry deep dives and personal success stories.

To listen to this episode (or to binge-listen to every single one, we wouldn’t judge you!) check us out on Spotify, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Sarah Doody is a UX Researcher and Experience Designer who runs the Career Strategy Lab, which is a six-month career accelerator program that focuses on career coaching and helping people perfect their portfolio and resume. In this episode, she tells us about how she pivoted to UX career consultancy, the role neuroscience and psychology play in our professional lives, and her expert advice on networking wisely in professional communities.

Unleashing UX Superpowers

A: For the past ten years I've been running my own User Experience consultancy, where I mainly focused on research and Experience Design, which includes thinking through the user or customer journey, product strategy, and the whole experience. I don't do visual design nor coding. In 2017 I fell into the world of UX career coaching, for lack of better words; it started with portfolios and now it's evolved into an end-to-end career coaching service that helps people with everything related to getting that next role.

Q: And about the initial steps with portfolios, was that for people that didn't have any portfolio to speak of, any experience of making portfolios, or for people who just couldn't convert their career into a good portfolio?

A: So it all started when in 2017, I received a lot of emails asking things like, how do I make a portfolio? How do I create case studies? How do I show my work in an interview? My solution was a one hour Lunch and Learn workshop, and within 24 or 48 hours, 85 people had signed up. I taught that workshop, people got hired, and they asked for a longer format with expert feedback.

It is intended for people who have some experience and need that portfolio. So if you are starting out in your educational journey with UX, it might be a little premature for you, but career switchers probably have experience that could be framed as things that we do in UX. You could change the perspective on research projects you did and turn it into a project for your portfolio.

Q: I think it speaks to a lot of our listeners who are either at the beginning of a bootcamp or just finished one, and a lot of them are career switchers; a big part of the Ironhack audience are career switchers by definition. We’ve talked before about applicable skills that can be reframed, which is a big skill in itself.

A: Yeah, it’s a UX superpower: connecting the dots between things, and starting with yourself by connecting the dots from your previous experience.

Learn to “Unspiral” and Find Your Creative Flow

Q: So speaking of career switching, you wanted to be a neuroscientist, correct? How did that go?

A: I'm not sure what this will say about me, but I didn't really know what to do with myself when I was in high school. I was always very creative and really good at writing and science, balancing the right and left brain. I wanted a stable job, and neuroscience seemed tolerable. I got accepted to a really great program in Ottawa, and then, long story short, I ended up taking a year off and I didn't pursue it. 

But what interested me was the mind-body connection and the psychology and physiological side of things. That didn’t play out, but I think there are topics and strengths in UX design that are very adjacent to what I would've been doing with neuroscience. 

Q: That's very interesting. We talk a lot about the concept of imposter syndrome, and coders and UX/UI students feel that, especially when they're switching careers. So it's always great when someone who switched shows that there are many parallel or reusable skills, which you do at the Career Strategy Lab.

A: Yes. I'm such an analytical and “get things done” person, and when I created this program, I included extremely detailed instructions on how to make your resume, but I didn't focus on all the underlying issues that come up during this process, like how to deal with imposter syndrome and confidence, which continues our discussion on neuroscience. In a Brené Brown interview they were talking about the power of the stories that our brains make up. She said that, when things happen, our brain needs to know the outcome, or we might spiral and make things up, to avoid being in the messy middle of not knowing. Our brains don't know the difference between fact and fiction, so if you can change that story from negative to positive, you’re tricking yourself into shifting to the positive. It's easier said than done, but I think it's something to keep in mind.

Q: You’re absolutely right. I just finished reading a book on that topic, by a neuroscientist who talks about the ideas of the currency of attention, and how your brain is trying to redirect your focus and trick you, pushing you towards either side. Once you become aware, you can reassess and try to be more objective and more positive. The same idea is repackaged in many different books and sometimes it sounds condescending to tell someone to be positive, but reprogramming your thinking really is hard work.

A: It's funny you mention this because at the beginning of 2020 I was writing a book, maybe I still am. I thought that many people might benefit from a key skill set of UX, which is context finding, context setting, and communicating context to other people. These could be used to get out of the messy, catastrophizing spiraling; I was going to call it Unspiral.

The three steps to how you unspiral, or stop catastrophizing, are its three P’s: to Pause, to Ponder, and to Proceed. I think our brains need to process those thoughts and filter out what is real and what isn’t. On the Pause step, you recognize that you're careening down the catastrophe highway. The Ponder step was where UX came in: step back and ask yourself, are these thoughts or things that are happening? Are they real things? Are they assumptions? Filtering fact from fiction is an interpersonal challenge we all have. Then, you Proceed with a new lens that is rooted in reality and not assumptions.

When the fire department came to my school and taught us about fires, we learned Stop, Drop and Roll. It's really easy to remember, which is why I applied that structure to the three P’s.

Q: After structure, the power of habit is important to build these positive thoughts. If you’re in a flow you’re also in a positive mindset.

A: Charles Limb explained in his TED talk that when you’re in a state of creative flow, the volume of negative self-talk decreases. So spend less time comparing, and just dive in and work on your resume, your portfolio, code that project. You’ll feel better, you’ll learn and you’ll get results. There's a discussion to be had about mental health in this industry, for sure.

The tech industry is obsessed with keeping up with the trends and new software, and that creates a lot of stress for people starting a tech career or switching to it, making them feel unqualified. In the Career Strategy Lab we want you to treat your career like a product.The first thing we do for people is a career roadmap, a miniature User Research project on themselves: they look back on their career and evaluate it. When was I really fulfilled? Where did I feel like I was using my strengths? I did not anticipate that this exercise would be considered the best part of this program. You gain a ton of confidence because half of it is just remembering successes and achievements, and asking other people about yourself, which gives you unexpected insight on strengths you dismissed or were oblivious to.

I encourage people to think three years ahead to plan the skills they need to learn or acquire now to prepare them for the role they want, but the timeline is different for everyone.

Q: It’s been a blur since I finished my bootcamp: two years! You focus and work and when you look back you’ve learned much more than you thought you would. It might be the effect of the pandemic on our perception of time. Have you noticed changes in job dynamics during the pandemic?

A: A lot more people are switching jobs, particularly with companies that didn’t transition well to remote work. People reconsidered their values and priorities, like travel, family and work-life balance. But hiring hasn’t slowed down. Some people are nervous about how the interview process has gone remote, making it a challenge to read the room. My advice is to build some rapport in the first three minutes and find an icebreaker to have a human moment, so it doesn’t feel like a conveyor-belt robotic experience.

Q: If I spend a small amount of time finding something outside of their job title and the interview topic, the conversation is much easier. It’s the substitute for the elevator chat that you don’t get with a video call. You're a big advocate of online communities and networking. Do you think that in-person networking still has a place?

A: Getting to know people on a human level is easier in person. And it can be achieved online, it just has to be more intentional and needs a little bit more effort, but I don't think it's going away.

Online Communities and Social Media: Are You Doing Too Much?

Q: Are there any online communities that you recommend to your students?

A: I think you have to be really intentional about which communities you join, why you are joining them and how much time you spend in them. Does it actually contribute to your goal or your life? On that note, Jared Spool has a great community called the Leaders of Awesomeness. Interaction Design Association is another UX association that does events and initiatives. Another one I'm a huge fan of is Tech Ladies. They do a great job of vetting companies for their job board, which is important these days, because there are so many not so great job descriptions or companies that know they need UX, but they don't really know what that actually means.

On this topic, there's a trend of being more extroverted and vocal in tech communities. But tech often attracts more introverted people. Do you think that it's more difficult for those people to get ahead?

A: I think it's an even playing field. I consider myself an introvert, maybe an ambivert, but I come across as an extrovert because I'm good at talking, which I've practiced. I think it's more about confidence and not about how vocal you are or how much you sell yourself.

Some UX education programs encourage people to document their learning journey, but sometimes that results in people writing articles just to tick a box. And it’s important to have a presence on social media where you can be discovered and even hired. And that's possible, I've definitely had people reach out to me because they found me online, but if you're doing it as a job search strategy, your time is better spent working on your resume and portfolio, or your LinkedIn. Use your time to proactively hunt down the roles that are right for you and make authentic connections with people at those companies. 

I use social media as a very strategic marketing decision. If you’re starting your career, you are a tiny, tiny goldfish in a massive, massive ocean. Social media shouldn't be your only strategy; you should approach it with a researcher mindset, diversify, and see which activities garner results. And then put more effort into those. Treat yourself like a product!

Q: So what's next for you and the Career Strategy Lab, Sarah?

Great question. I just hired two career coaches to work with me and free me up to focus on the next chapter of Career Strategy Lab, which is how to make a dent in the world of UX hiring. Because there's two problems. There's the candidate side and the company side of hiring and Career Strategy Lab is helping the candidates become more competitive and focused.

Now, I want to focus on the companies and fix problems such as job descriptions and hiring processes, so that I can play matchmaker with companies that have higher UX maturity and aren’t a dead end for our candidates. If I can close the loop, it'll make a powerful difference in the industry.

If you want to know more about Sarah’s UX work and Career Strategy Lab, you can listen to the full Ironhack Podcast episode here.

Still curious about User Experience Design? Take a look at our UX/UI bootcamp, or check out this post with our recommendations on books about UX/UI Design!

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