The truth is, many of my most successful peers (men and women alike) studied liberal arts or taught themselves. Some fields — product design in particular — are well suited for those with liberal arts educations. If you’re considering switching to a career in tech, here are some resources and practical advice to help you get started and prepare you for a fulfilling and challenging career in the industry. Most of these stories are based on my colleagues and my experiences as designers, but the advice also applies to adjacent technical fields like engineering and product management.
Alisha Ramos, 24, graduated from Harvard with degrees in sociology and history, and got a job as a consultant… and then she quit to learn how to be a front-end designer. She used savings to help support herself during six months of learning and also started taking on freelance work to build up her portfolio. “It’s incredibly scary to leave a job you may feel comfortable at, especially if it’s to pursue a job in a completely different industry,” she said. “But, if you have the passion, grit, and determination, you absolutely will not regret it once you reach your goal.” Ramos also notes more advanced learning can occur after you’ve made the switch. “One common misconception is that you have to be absolutely amazing at what you do in order to make the career switch, but I quickly realized how many people and companies were willing to take on a fresh, young designer. If you show aptitude and willingness to learn, that will take you very far.”
While learning on the job has many benefits — like keeping your salary — another popular option is to take some time off from work to attend immersive design programs. These programs prepare students for junior-engineering or designer roles within 8 to 12 weeks. Hackbright Academy is one of the more renown engineering schools aimed specifically at women. Design industry vets Jared Spool and Leslie Jensen-Inman recently launched Center Centre, a design-oriented program that is now accepting applications for its inaugural class of UX students. Metis is also hosting a UX and front-end development nine-week bootcamp this fall — applications for which are due September 2. General Assembly is another popular school that runs the gamut by offering immersive programs for Web development, UX design, and product management. While most of these schools charge tuition, some, like Hacker School in New York, are free. If free sounds great, get this: Etsy provides grants to select Hacker School students to help offset the cost of living during the three-month program. Though it is a larger commitment, it’s also worth noting the abundance of graduate degree programs in Human-Computer Interaction that are typically aimed at students without design backgrounds. For some of these programs, you can earn your master’s degree in one year.
Immersive programs aren’t right for everybody. Many disciplined designers are self-taught, thanks to free or inexpensive online resources. HackDesign offers free tutorials on using design tools and lessons on design process. If you’re interested exclusively in programming, Codecademy and Khan Academy are two popular sites that offer completely free lessons. Treehouse, Skillshare, and the aforementioned General Assembly also offer online tutorials for design and development. Design+Code offers a comprehensive guide to learning Sketch, an affordable Photoshop alternative growing in popularity amongst practicing designers. I also recommend bookmarking Designer News, which aggregates links to things like source files (which can explain how designers achieve certain visual effects), tutorials, thought pieces, and even Q&A’s on topics like salaries and freelancing. Alice Lee, 22, is a business school graduate who previously worked on Dropbox’s design team and is now a freelance designer and illustrator. She cites the Internet as one of the resources integral to her learning, as well as a venue for exposure. Lee adds, “Because I started out being completely self-taught, I tend to self-initiate my own personal projects, which means more practice and even potential exposure, which in turns eventually leads to more related professional projects down the line.
The majority of online resources and tutorials for designers focus heavily on honing technical skills, such as using Photoshop or Sketch. These skills are important, but technical execution is only half the job. The more challenging aspect of software design lies in making creative decisions to improve the user experience of a product. This skill is mostly developed through experience, but there are books that will introduce you to the basics of usability and designing in favor of it. Jesse James Garrett’s Elements of User Experience is a great primer, and Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is required reading in most university design programs. There’s another great resource already in your hands: your phone. If you’re interested in mobile design, become familiar with the design patterns for specific platforms, such as how things look and function on Android versus iOS. Next time you’re using a mobile app, take note of the layout, the visual treatments, the way you navigate between sections, and the location of important actions. Do this for all the apps you use often, and you’ll begin to form a familiarity with the design language. If you have an iPhone, grab your friend’s Android phone (or vice versa) and a laptop, and compare how a popular application like Instagram or Foursquare looks and functions on all three. Testing different devices and operating systems will give you a good sense of the design decisions practicing designers make for each platform.
Switching careers doesn’t mean throwing out your current skillset. Use those skills you and the industry you currently work in to your advantage. The best designers have empathy for their intended audience — your varied, unique background gives you an understanding of a specific industry and audience that other designers may not possess.
Elaine Dunlap, 35, previously worked in a hospital, which helped develop her sense of compassion — a skill she now uses when designing products for BuzzFeed’s broad audience. Alice Lee also places value in her business background: “It’s helpful to be multidisciplinary,” Lee told us. “It helps you to better understand and communicate with others not just in a professional context, but also in general, in life.”
Get Your Foot In The Door
The beauty of the burgeoning tech industry is that you can start learning new skills while still getting paid. No matter your background, there is most likely a position at a startup that could utilize the skills you currently have (for example: office management, customer support, or community management). Working in this environment will give you exposure to how design teams function, allow you to form relationships with designers, and have direct access to mentorship. A company of 10 to 100 employees is likely big enough to hire roles in business and operations, yet small and flexible enough to allow employees to transition to different departments.
If you’re currently freelancing, consider renting a desk in a co-working space. When Dunlap first started freelancing, she worked out of a co-working space for designers, which she credits as a valuable resource. “Even though I had enough space at home to work,” Dunlap said, “it turned out that being with a community of designers was an essential way to get knowledge and feedback, even if we were all working on different projects. Through that core group, I met more designers and teams looking for web expertise. I think it would have been a slower introduction to some great opportunities if I hadn't made this investment.”
Product design is a lot more objective than you might think. Successful product design focuses less on personal taste and aesthetic flare and more on a product’s ease of use. As technology weaves its way into our everyday lives, we need varied people, perspectives, and backgrounds to help us design products that are accessible to everyone.
This post was authored by Sabrina Majeed, a product designer at BuzzFeed.
Introducing LadyBits, an ultra-cool collective of tech journalists who look at the world with smart, lady lenses. And, since we're always in the market for the best stuff out there, we'll feature its know-how on the regular.