Job Hunting In the Time of COVID
Melinda Kilner presented “Job Hunting In the Time of COVID” at UX Camp Fall 2020. Enjoy!
The global pandemic has forced many of us to fully rethink how to do our work remotely while managing the increasing anxiety around what the future will look like. It is not an obvious time to add searching for a new job into the mix.
Nonetheless, I decided to leave a company of 9 years in pursuit of something new. As a designer used to collaborating shoulder-to-shoulder at a whiteboard, I had many concerns. How would I get a feel for what it was like to work with new colleagues? Would I be able to grasp the company culture? Would I be able to convey my best self though screens alone? Would I survive the back-to-back Zooms?
Come learn what I’ve learned while tackling the job hunt in an entirely remote environment; from the challenges to the surprising upsides and opportunities that eventually led to landing a new role at Gem.
Senior Product Designer, Gem
Melinda is a Senior Product Designer at Gem, helping teams nurture top talent. With a background in front-end development, she also has extensive experience designing for the learning and training space, and helping worldwide organizations build their digital content design systems. When she’s not working, you can find her in San Francisco, baking sourdough and catching up on podcasts.
The following transcript very likely contains typographical errors. Please forgive any mistakes!
Hi everyone, my name is Melinda, I’m a product designer, and the story I wanna tell you today is all about finding a job in the middle of the pandemic, so at the end of 2019, I made the decision for myself that it was time to go somewhere new, I had been at my company for nine years, which is a pretty good run in the tech world, and I was already from my ex role, my next challenge, I was excited about all the new possibilities and what was out there in the next phase in my career. So I did the things that you normally do in the situation, I got my portfolio in order, I started some initial conversations to feel out what exactly I was looking for next, and then covid hit and it felt like… Absolutely, everything was offended. I imagine this is a topic that I will soon be familiar to a lot of people this year, and I also know that every experience will be very different, but I wanna share what this journey looks like for me, I wanna share what my fears were and how I actually got to a place where this felt like a sane moved to make what the reality looks like, what I struggled with and what things were surprisingly refreshing, and finally, now that I’ve had some time to reflect what I’ve learned about interviewing in this very strange time, and
My hope is that if you’re currently looking or starting to think about your next move, something here will resonate or be valuable to you, and similarly, if you’re a design leader who’s growing your team, hopefully that’s gonna shed some light on what the candidate experience is like, and how to foster that sense of trust or connection at a time that we’re all very physically distant. So I’ll start from the beginning how I went about doing this. And for starters, I almost didn’t… When it became clear that things were not going back to normal, at least any time soon, suddenly my almost decade of tenure at my current company seems like a very comfortable and appealing position to be in, and the idea of going somewhere else, some are unknown. Suddenly felt like a much larger gamble. So what exactly was I worried about?
Well, initially, when thinking about changing jobs, however amazing, the opportunity sounded, there was usually the trade-off of leaving a team where I had built relationships and trust and ways of working with people that I knew really well, and knowing that in going somewhere new, I would have to build all of that again, with a new team and a new company culture.
It’s exciting, but it’s also pretty daunting, and all of that was now coupled with the knowledge that I would have to do this entirely remotely without the ability to grab coffee or to work in a room together, or to even meet anyone at the company in person before I started, there was also the reality that every company now was in the middle of figuring out what this new situation not for their business and for their current employees. And even if the business was stable, how our company’s supporting workers as they want remote, there were the conversation and advice I got from a lot of friends, which very often was, yeah, it definitely seems like a good time to stay put right now.
And finally, I honestly had a lot of feelings of guilt that I was fortunate enough to still be employed at a time when not everyone was that Lucky, but one thing that quarantine did provide an abundance of was an unprecedented amount of time to reflect on the question and to think about what I really wanted next, and
Ultimately, it was in the midst of a lot of sitting still that this actually felt like something that I could still act on, and even if it was going to look different from what I originally would have expected or wanted… So at that point, I decided what I needed to do next was to really understand what it would take for me to get past some of those fears and move forward, and I started dipping my toes, and again, I started taking some more conversations just to see what it felt like… And of course, everything else as we’ve sheltered in place, all of this began in the comfort of my own home. So for myself, and I would imagine a lot of people… One of the hardest things about transitioning to working from home in this environment has been just a sudden lack of boundaries between a professional and a living space, and this might be physically, you’re actually working from your bedroom or just mentally, how do you connect and disconnect from work when there’s literally no change in your environment or space.
And I bring this up because when I was starting my job search, all of that was already true, and now it felt like I was suddenly inviting a whole new slew of people into my space via or Zoom and I was mentally juggling all of that.
So I imagine I’m also not alone in coming up with some strange habits or strategies for making all of this work. One of mine in particular was that I actually took all of my recruiting calls sitting on the floor, and this was because I have this unconscious habit of just pasting the length of my apartment whenever I’m on the phone at home, and it was causing me to talk really fast and potentially get stricter by things, which was not what I was going for in these initial conversations, so before any call, I would literally ground myself and use that as a way to sort of help get into this Sentral space that was somewhere between work and home, I was also regularly coming out of a state of being on when I was fitting interviews in between and already fairly busy, and I started referring to this is interview brain as a way to signal to myself when I needed to take a break or go for a walk and clear my head, or maybe even have to pause and in the middle of a conversation with a friend or loved one when I realized I was bringing this excessive solution-oriented interview energy to the conversation.
But all of that side… What I was trying to do during this time was to pay attention to what new things that I was looking for now from companies and these initial conversations, so what made a conversation clicked beyond just that initial description of the role…
It was really great to learn about the history and culture of a company. As it was when everyone was in a shared space and without the pressures of covid, but the reality was that a lot of that has likely changed with everyone working remotely, and not necessarily for the worst, but I knew from experience at that point, it’s just a completely different way of engaging, and it takes a while to adapt to…
So I found myself no longer responding to that super crisp articulation of culture and collaboration that I might have really loved a few months prior, and instead I was drawn to conversations that acknowledge the truth of the situation.
I wanted to hear… It would have been hard what programs, what events, what resources teams were just trying to put in place to preserve those company values and culture and connection. What I responded to was people meeting me in this place of uncertainty and showing me that this is something that we were all figuring out together, it was hearing someone say, I started this job after we all went remote, and it’s been weird, but here’s how it’s been and here’s what we’ve been trying, and
It was really in those conversations that felt very honest that I felt I found what I needed to move forward. And so the next part was understanding what it actually looked like to interview now to get to know a team, to find the right job in this environment, and the only thing to do was to practice. So the first thing that such was, there was no one to go meet…
I have to admit, I had previously placed a lot of value on the vibe of an office, and I don’t just mean the physical space, but everything with that space entails… Just what was the energy like? What kind of work was up on the walls, how are people engaging with each other, and could I see myself coming to work there every day? And it was an opportunity for me to really connect with the other people there. So I personally have never felt like my whole self over the phone or over video conferencing, and this was usually when I would get those opportunities to have those one-on-one chats or white boarding sessions where I could bring my whole self to the conversation into the process, and I really felt like so much would be lost without that… And I wasn’t wrong. Zoom, in my opinion, is great, but it’s not a whole replacement, but I actually had this shift in understanding early on that really helped me adapt my approach and how I felt about the remote interview process as a whole.
So this feels silly to say, because we had all been sheltering in place for a while at this point, but when I started remote interviews, I still picture it in my head, all of my interviewer is sitting in a room together in a shared space that I would call into and present my work.
But of course, the reality was that all of us were calling in from our various living rooms or bedrooms or closets, doubling as our workspace, we were all missing my office experience one way or another.
And I wasn’t this visitor to an established space, I was just one of many people calling in from their home.
And it became clear that because of that, because we were on this level playing field, that these were my meetings to own and guide in a way that may not have been as much of the case if we were doing this in person.
And it really changed my frame of mind from that place of, Hey, what do I need right now to move forward to, Okay, if this is my team, what do they need for me right now. And as with a lot of things, I found having someone else’s needs and mind suddenly made a lot of this a lot easier.
So one of the first things that I decided I needed to adjust was just to admit some universal truths that we’ve all learned about Zoom or the conference tools of your choice, and that these are not about me, so everything feels longer and is harder to focus on, again, that’s not about me, but I can change how I show up because of it. For example, presenting the most thorough and detailed and NP study over the course of an hour is probably not gonna cut it and keeping people engaged. There are inevitable silences, no matter how well a presentation or a meeting is going, No one can make eye contact with each other to Intuit who has a question or when to speak or when not to speak. The case of this is something that we are all still learning, and again, this isn’t necessarily a reflection on the quality of the content, it’s just gonna be the environment that you’re working in. And then finally, I would not be able to read the room. I was blind to body language, to engagement, to confusion, and this was something that I was just gonna have to navigate.
But I do want to think that one person that is always smiling and nodding the whole course of the meeting, even if I can’t see you… I was greatly appreciated.
So here are some of the things that I did. I took a bit of a too long didn’t read approach to my portfolio review, my presentation has got a lot more high level right off of that, and I got to my main points much faster, so rather than building up to a solution over the length of a presentation, I wanted to get there quickly, have people understand what I thought was most relevant and then spend time on the journey and the process.
Because at the end of the day, I wanted to try to engage for people on the qual to conversation and questions. I focused on is trying to leave bread crumbs of all of the other details that I could jump into. If it felt right. So maybe I was focusing on a fascinating user testing insight or a nearly technical hurdle that we had to work through, or a process improvement that came out of the project. All of these could be great to talk about in the right context, but I didn’t need to include them all right off of that, so rather than pack as much of this into a presentation as possible, what I did is I worked on building out this appendix of work that was a tool belt to pull from in the right context when it made sense.
And while I was ideally preparing for that conversation, question flow of meeting, sometimes the reality was the toolset… I can remember this happening in an interview where I had been explicitly told to prepare for a conversational format, and the reality was it was a really large group, which meant that people were really quiet.
Fortunately, I have done my fair share of remote training in the past, so I kind of channel that energy here and moving forward with these kinds of meetings, and what I mean by that is pausing for questions often… Just to give people the opportunity to speak up if they happen to have a branding question, but also assuming that 90% of the time you’ll get absolute silence and no one will have any… And not letting that do you real anything, but at that point, just answering a question of your own…
Any questions? No. Fantastic, so the question that I had at the time was what design exercises would look like, particularly sessions that would have been white boarding interviews.
So this was one of the areas that I was convinced would be the hardest to do remotely, and in fact, we’re across the board, some of the absolute best sessions that I had while interviewing, and I think it was because the whole process had lost its formula, there was no longer any expectation of either of us coming to the table with the knowledge of the right way to go about it. And what happened was, there was this meta process of also figuring out how we wanted to work together, so would we jump into a pimple and try to collaborate, there would be sketch ideas on paper and email them back and forth, would we use some other tool like docs or slides and try to hack that into a wire framing tool just for the purposes of communicating on this call, and I found the ambiguity here was so much more humanizing and representative of the way is that we could actually work together if we needed to accomplish something.
Which leads me to kind of my biggest question, able, which was, how would I be able to tell that these were people that I could and wanted to work with, and how would they be able to tell that… They wanted to work with me, and this is an area that all specifically direct toward anyone right now that’s hiring, because this is where at the end of the day, the company is remote culture and how it supported their employees really showed through. So what resonated in these sessions, one of the best examples on this front was just having a group lunch scheduled as part of my on-site, a chance to connect with people on a purely social level, that was built into this process of making my decision.
I also looked for indicators of a company’s willingness to sort of lean into the new normal of these times, seeing people’s kids and pets on camera really gave me a sense that this is part of the cadence of the work day, and this was how people were showing up, a lot of folks volunteered their emails or phone numbers for personal follow-ups just to help make up some of that gap now that we were all remote and give me help, give me a little bit more insight into what the company was like. And then finally, just seeing how people interacted with each other when they maybe saw each other for the first time in one of my interviews that day, it was very different from being in person, but it was still possible to read the team’s energy and certainly got an indication for how everyone’s handling remote work. So ultimately, I was able to find a company and a team at gem that felt like such a good fit, and I made it to the point where I was finally able to reflect on all of this… I will tell you for certain that everything I’ve talked about so far, I felt much messier at the time, but I also definitely learned a lot.
And so much of this is my personal experience, and it will be different from person to person, but here’s the advice that I want to give… Embrace the ambiguity. While it’s scary, there is a whole lot of opportunity going into a job hunting situation where everything is less a science than it’s ever been.
For me, this month, I let go of trying to prepare the perfect presentation or demonstration of my design framework, and instead I focused on giving myself a lot of options and adapting to circumstances for each interview and conversation in the best way that I saw, and this month that I had no two conversations or presentations that were exactly the same, and honestly, that was kind of refreshing, but it’s not… You zooms are exhausting. There’s a lot of theories in writing as to why this is, but I’m also sure that you have experienced this first hand, be kind to yourself and give yourself time to process and recover even from short interviews and understand that this is hire for everyone, and it’s not just you…
And then finally, the best piece of advice I got while going through this process was after I was done learning and improving my remote interview skills, to just keep doing what I was doing.
And what I mean by that is, after an interview, if there are things you know you can change to make something better, or a question that you could give more thought too, then by all means do it, but don’t guess and tear apart work you’ve done if an opportunity falls through, there
Are so many external factors that go into hiring decisions and while it could be really frustrating to not always get feedback on what did or didn’t go well, at a certain point, it’s healthier to trust your gut if you’re proud of your work and not to try to keep tinkering with it. It might be just the right thing for the right company it… I feel incredibly fortunate that I found a new role and a team that I’m really excited about, and we put a lot of energy into figuring out how to make this version of work work.
And ultimately, I did find that the interviewing process during covid was more positive than I thought it would be. But I just wanna end by acknowledging that this can be really hard, these are not normal times, and while there are ways that we can meet the challenges and grow and create new opportunities, and none of this is easy, but I know you’ve got this… Keep doing what you’re doing. Thank you all so much. I really wanted to make sure to leave a few minutes for questions if people have them, and I’ll definitely jump into the Slack and follow up there. Definitely reach out to me. Thank you so much for listening. I hope this was helpful.