#11 - Peter Pham - Self Learning, Importance of personal branding and confidence in design, & Mentoring Jr. UX designers

23 min read • Dianne Eberhardt

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Peter discusses the importance of personal branding, having confidence in your design work, and the challenges of being a self-taught designer.

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Dianne: Hello, welcome to the Pixelated Perfect Podcast. We have Peter here today and are super excited to talk to him. So he is a junior designer. He's recently gone through a kind of all of the things that Junior does that designers have gone through. And now he's here to kind of tell his story and how he's doing it and making being a product designer and full-time gig and all of the things that go with it. So really excited to have you on the podcast today. Peter, thanks so much for being here.

Peter: Thank you for having me today, I'm super excited to talk about my journey and how I can potentially help other Junior designers, who are also in the same boat. As I am.

Dianne: Love it, love it. So perfect. So let's kind of start off with hearing kind of your background, where'd you come from? Maybe where you were before, you kind of entered the design space, and then let's kind of dive into everything. Tell me your full story of how you got to today and then we'll kind of go back through and dive deeper into some of those key places.

Peter: Yeah, so before I was a ux product designer, I studied computer science and it during my college Years, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County or UMBC. And I graduated when everything was still on fire. If, you know, you know, I dreaded going to class everyday because I didn't really loved what I was doing and knowing myself, if I didn't love it. was doing. I was going to be terrible at it, especially if I actually landed a job that I didn't. Like so I mean before I even heard of ux design, I I knew that I wanted to make a direct impact on people. The hard part was just discovering the medium. That was right for me the with ITI didn't feel like it allowed me to achieve my goals or fulfill, my creative passion. I needed as I needed to find a space that had a deeper purpose on on why I do things for others. So fast forward to the last year of my college. I was talking to a close friend of mine who was studying ux design at the time and they were they told me about all the cool things that they were learning and how designers can make a strong impact through the power of ux design. And it sounded like a pretty neat feel to be in. It was also relatively new at the time, so the growth potential was there. But I didn't really know too much about it, so I decided to join a design hackathon to see what it was all about. And I got to be a bunch of designers from all over the world but all different types of backgrounds and skill levels. And I got to learn about people's goals their motivations and listen to their personal stories and I learned how some of them were actually career Changers and they were all willing to start all over again. To do this thing called ux design. And for for most of the people that I met there, I saw this this passion in their eyes and to make a difference to design and that ignited a fire in my eyes as well. So immediately after I graduated, I said to myself, I'm dropping everything to teach myself, ux design. So I jumped into the ux world without knowing whether or not, I'd be successful, not working any other job, nothing else lined up. It was the one of the biggest risk I've ever taken yet. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made. As you can tell, because I'm on the pixelated perfect podcast right now with the one and only Dianne. Yeah. So, I'm currently working as a, in an interaction designer at a design agency based in NY, called coding Theory and I work remotely based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Dianne: Love it. Love it, love it. I love like you knew that in your senior year that you didn't have that passion and that spark. And you kind of talked a little bit about having a direct impact on people and how that was so important to you. And I'm just curious like where did that come from? Like as you kind of chose computer science and it like, was that something that you were passionate about it at some point and that you thought you would have an impact? And as you got deeper, is that kind of where it's wish it was there something where it was like, oh, you know what? I actually found my my real calling is helping people. What was that Discovery? How did that come about?

Peter: Yeah so I did have a passion for computer science as well initially and as I went through it, it was just I mean it just didn't feel like the right medium for me. Like I I needed to find something that really fit me and this doesn't, this just wasn't it because I had to rewire my brain to kind of think a certain way. And it just it's just like, you know, creating something something new out of It's nothing. So yeah, it's just yeah. So I mean, I was struggling to find a new medium and it's just nothing really came up. And so I talked to my friend and that's okay. That was a game-changer gate and they literally just changed my life there.

Dianne: I love that. No, that's awesome. Okay, I want to talk about this hackathon. Like, I think that a lot of people that are interested in ux design, especially career Changers, like I heard this, it feels like it would be a great fit, they don't really know how to test the waters or how to dive deeper. So, how did you find the hackathon?

Peter: Oh yeah. So the friend that I talked to you about she went to the The University of Washington and University of Washington, had a design hackathon called the proton, and this was in 2020 and I just, you know, blindly applied and you know, wanted to participate. And yeah, I got to meet so many different people. I of I knew no one and I just came in there. Blindly, I was I just wanted to learn about this field. I didn't care if we won or anything. Is it was just like I'm here to meet people and learn about what they do. And yeah just see if this is right for me and then ended up being the right choice for me.

Dianne: Yeah I mean I love hackathons. I think it's like such a great way to bring a bunch of people together to tackle like a problem and to dive deeper and like do something for real. It's like a real case and it's like a real thing. You're building versus me being some classes you learn techniques but you're like actually doing it and that's why I think it's so impactful. What was what was the project that you worked on for the hackathon?

Peter: Yeah, so this was doing covid time. So obviously we had, we had to make a Covid app and it was for tablets. I yeah. It was for tablet and I worked on a team with about 5 other people for five other people through throw, the entire u.s. region. And yeah it was It was kind of rough because I had no idea what I was doing. And I mean, the project itself wasn't the greatest, but I learned a lot and got to meet a lot of people and, you know, some of the people I still keep in contact with. So that's that's great as well.

Dianne: Did you were you just like thrown into some programs?

Peter: I knew that figma was one of the tools that designers use, so I did play around with it before I jumped into the hackathon. I do have some experience with like Photoshop and other other tools as well. That's kind of where I have my informal visual design background messing around in the cracked versions of Photoshop as a now putting my friends faces on weird objects Mickey yeah. All very informal but I have I have been exposed to these tools for quite a while. Okay. Okay. Yeah because I feel like that would be something with like, oh my gosh, what am I doing? Yeah, and it's thrown into the world. No, that's that's great.

Dianne: I mean for people that are looking to test the waters, do you think a Hackett like is there any other ideas you have or anything else that you've done? That? You would suggest to and of people looking to make that career change to see if they love what ux is.

Peter: Yeah, I think a hackathon is probably the best way other than that, there's Google. But I mean, hearing it from other people directly who were also trying to Career chains or if they've already created changed and are just trying to better their skills, it's a great environment to be in and just learn learn about this, this field.

Dianne: Yeah. No, I agree. I think a hackathon. I love hackathons. I highly encourage everyone. No matter what level of design. I think it always is like, it just inspires and makes you think differently and you get to work with new people. I think it's just like a great reset for any, any level you are in product design. So you just this hackathon and a basically, you were like I'm in. So you dropped everything. You you started to dive deeper into ux, what was that process? What did you do to? Kind of learn that skill set and to feel confident and gaining that knowledge of product design.

Peter: Yeah. So let's talk about bootcamps bootcamp versus the self-taught road and I'm pretty sure there's other roads as well. But I mean, nowadays there are so many boot camp. So you, you might be wondering, oh, there's so many ux boot camps out there. Why didn't you just enroll it in one and make your life easier? So I ended up going to soft our route and for personal reasons. I feel like it just wasn't for me boot camps, just weren't for me. There are some pros to put camps boot camps are less time consuming and a faster way to learn the basics of ux the price of a kidney or 1500 make chickens pretty inflation, depends on what your priorities are and obviously and I also knew at that, I did a lot of research on boot camps before I decided to go to self-taught rep but I learned that not all employers. See boot camps as a sufficient level of training tool and a real-life job in ux and a lot of ux, a lot of Junior ux designers. I see nowadays go around thinking that a boot camp, is all they need in order to get a job. But that's just, that's the furthest from the truth, from my observations, they only seem to teach how to land a first job, but nothing to help navigate the world and becoming a successful designer after you've learned the first job. And so that's that's one of the reasons why. But bootcamps. Yep. They're really, they're fine for people who like in need the structure to learn effectively that just wasn't the case for me. Also, one of the main reasons was that it reminded me too much of school and how its structured. I never really did super great in school because I learned things differently from others. So I decided it was time for me to learn ux my way what materials to learn where to Learn it and who else I can learn from. Yep. So self-taught wrote, it sounds pretty nice. Right. Well it was really tough though and I often self reflected and ask myself where should I even start? Like what do I read articles books? Which one how many do I just read? 100 medium articles a day and become ux genius, or do I read the Design of Everyday Things a hundred times? And there were other all other thoughts that I had like, I'm feeling really lonley in this journey, I don't even know if people know what ux design is. I don't know anyone who else who else is in the same position as I am. Am I really going to go through this alone? And I'm going to be transparent here. I went through some mental health stuff, following personal events and it kept me stagnant for a good while to be honest. But without those dark times, I wouldn't have been in the position that I am today, because it pushed me to work 10 times as hard even though I I gave quite a quite a bit of unhealthy amount of time and effort into doing that stuff. Definitely crossed a lot of unhealthy boundaries. But yeah, as time went on I started to discover ux Design discordservers and slack groups, ATP list and other favors resources that helps me throughout my journey. I like to see, I like to view these as like Buffs or like Weaponry that I needed My toolkit to reach the next level in a video game. And So eventually I discovered what we're me and how I learned through trial and error. I just started working on new case studies and try to learn something new from every project. I basically learned by doing this by doing being very Hands-On, looking things up and learning as I go when whenever I encountered a problem or something new And reading medium articles and your Xbox 48 hours, a day was going to help me become a great ux designer. Trust me, I tried this and it. I suffered the thing that helped me was doing projects, reaching out to my mentors asking for feedback learning from my mistakes and iterating is what's going to help me become a great ux designer and I definitely struggled really hard, but I I learned invaluable skills that I would have never learned at a bootcamp from my peers and mentors.

Dianne: Yeah, that was a lot in a very well, said, way. And I think there are a lot of people that are trying to figure out if self-taught or bootcamp is, and I think you touched on a lot of really important points that a lot of people can take listen to this podcast thing, like, try to make that decision for themselves and hearing more about like self-taught, like how you got started and like, what resources you used. And I kind of felt a connection with what you said about like how you learn and like you don't necessarily learn traditional way in you worried that boot camp was going to feel like school and I definitely am like a very visual learner and I like to do the same way as you, and I definitely could see why boot camp would not be able to meet that because you're just crossing off, checking off those boxes saying you did it. So I can definitely relate to that need of like trial and error and not necessarily reading the same book. really good bunch of articles but actually going in and trying to figure it out and reading about that specific thing that you can't figure out and that's how you're going to learn and you're going to keep iterating and keep doing and doing and doing. And it's a it's a ton of work, it's super stressful and hard. But like, it's so rewarding when it's like you actually are creating something and learning and building something and you like have something that you've done, that you're proud of. So I think that's amazing. From for the case studies that you did create on your own while you were. I've taught like have you gone back to them and like looked at them. Now in hindsight and seeing like what you could be doing better, are you sitting there and like judging the work that you that you did?

Peter: Yeah. All the time all the time, like my very first. The very first case study on my portfolio is is actually the one that I worked on with the friend that I told you about earlier. So we worked. We both worked on this one case study and it took a while, it took a while it wasn't supposed to take this this long but it took a while because it was both of our first time making a case study and so I learned a lot about like scope creep, scopecreep is one of them learning to collaborate with other other designers and yeah, just overall time management because not every project is going to be as time relaxing, As a case study that I just created.

Dianne: So yeah and that's great and it sounds like a lot of these things you learned in these early case studies you can apply to today like yeah let's go creep is a real thing. It happens all the time managing time. Like all of the that's kind of what I wanted to ask next is like what do you recommend for Junior designers to learn about project management and other things? Because design is one thing, right? Design is super important. And obviously if you want to be a designer, you need to design but there's all these other parts of design. So there's like project management. Understanding working, collaborating, all of these other things. Do you have any tools or ideas or ways that you would suggest for people to learn these skills? Is it case studies? Is it coming of Thrones case studies any? What would you suggest?

Peter: I think the best way to approach this is to talk to someone who knows what they're doing and so The resource that I talked about earlier was a teepee list and there's, there's a lot of different people on there. There's designers, there's Engineers, there's product managers, you name it. And so a couple months back, I actually reached out to a couple engineers and product managers just to learn about what they do and how they communicate with product designers and how they can make my job better and how can help them. And so, yeah. Having that just learning about what each other's jobs are. And what they what we do is is the most important thing. And yeah I think this you have just learning from someone like that firsthand is is really going to be the best way.

Dianne: Yeah. No I love that. I think ATP list is amazing. Highly suggest for anyone to kind of research and it's a great sort source to find people and then destroy or Project managers are anyone and understanding kind of how you can relate to them. So yeah, I think that's a great tip for people. So how, how long were you kind of studying and self-teaching before you felt confident to kind of get to that next stage? And what was that next stage for you?

Peter: Yeah. So I spent about very close to a year working on my, my portfolio alone and during that time I was still working on my case studies and still still learning about the basics and all that stuff. And I got to a point where I talked to all my mentors and met up with a bunch of people on a teepee list and they just had nothing else to say or critique about my, my case study or my studies are my portfolio in general and they're just like, just go apply like you're like you're ready. Yeah, you're ready. Yeah. Yeah. And so I think that's probably one of the times where I had like a green light. I was like okay yeah. If this many people are saying, okay my case studies are good enough so that I can go and apply for jobs and yeah I'm going to do it and so I applied to a bunch of different jobs and I got more confident at a networking as well. I started to work on networking and I made a bunch of meaningful connections and even consider some some of the people that I met on LinkedIn, my close friends. And that's kind of where I met my mentor and friend Elena. That's that's where she jumps into the picture. If you haven't watched episode 4 of the pixelated podcast, with Elena Haskins do that. But after watching this one definitely. Yeah, I love that. Yeah, really amazing. Yes, tell me more. Tell me more. Yeah, so how I met Elena? I met her by applying for a job. She posted on LinkedIn which I ended up getting by the way and I got to work with her. And another super talented ux designer and now friend of my Olivia, she's absolutely amazing. We worked on a project of Elena's called converge, which is a website guide that helps recent College grads navigate through Life After College. And we worked on revamping the information architecture. You extra G and content organization of the site. And I got to learn so much from Lena and Olivia on how to work as a team problem-solving design thinking and overall, I just had one of the best times of my career. Like doing what I love and being around the people who see value in me. And I finally felt like, I wasn't alone in my York's Journey anymore. And I feel extremely grateful for Elena for giving me a chance and seeing my value as a ux designer.

Dianne: I love that. I think that It's designing is not a solo position. I think that when you design with other designers, that's really where you grow, you get to bounce ideas, you get to hear other people's, you get to collaborate and come up with something even better. And I think that it sounds like that was such an important Milestone because you've been doing self-taught, you were kind of occasionally working with a friend on a case study. But you felt like you were like alone and this, this journey and you were able to kind of like see what it was like to actually take everything you learned and applied it and learn and grow with other people and I think that's like such a so impactful and for anyone listening like product and is very much a collaborative effort and like that's something that's going to just being open to that as just going to open so many doors for you. So I think that's amazing. And I love that like you have this relationship with Elena and Olivia and like, How you feel like they've really helped you kind of grow. I can feel that and that's that's like so amazing to feel like you have those connections with other designers and you got to work on like this really cool project to write like converges, super interesting and it's probably fresh to you because you were recently a college grad. So you knew what that process was like Definitely, that's amazing. I love that. So so where we are is you kind of you were working with Elena and you're doing converge and on a project like that. And then what happened next? Where was your next step?

Peter: At the same time as I was working with Elena and Olivia, I was a park designer at a web three startup that was in the process of creating a platform where Anyone could easily invest in digital real estate in the middle verse, which is a very, you know, very abstract thing. I had really no idea what I was getting myself into, but I thought I thought of it as like a very interesting learning opportunity. Yeah, I took it and yeah, I learned a lot from the people that were in the startup and made even more meaningful connections. I also worked at a PHP, kiosk screen design company. Working with businesses, mainly restaurants like Popeyes McDonald's and smaller cafes to run their POS or point-of-sale systems effectively.

Dianne: So I were you freelancing at these gigs at the same time. So you were kind of working on all of these projects. Yeah. Yeah. So what was that? Like how was that juggling? Because these projects are all very different.

Peter: Yeah. I it was really hard to juggle. I felt like I didn't have enough time in my day to do all these out these things and I was just hoping to get a full-time job so I just didn't have to juggle as many things. That was my main goal got it. Yeah.

Dianne: And so was there one of those projects that like stood out to you like that, you really enjoyed and what was it that you enjoyed about it?

Peter: Um, I think The the web three startup was very interesting because it didn't really go to. Well, it ended up like not working out but I got to meet senior product designers as well and at the time, so Junior. So I got to learn so much about how startups work and doing value proposition workshops and you know, business business model, kind of stuff. And so I learned a lot of things that were not product design in that startup. And yeah, I learned a lot about the, the web three spaces. Well, and like, it's like how it's growing, how it's the future and I see its potential and so I can finally say that I've dipped my toes into kind of a new territory. Yeah.

Dianne: No I think that's powerful. I think it's like, also staying up on Trends in knowing words going and I think I think what I love about what during that space is it's like Uncharted Territory. So there's like so many lessons to learn. So many ways to like approach it which is really really cool and fun for a designer.

Peter: Yeah, Elena also started a ux mentorship program under her design studio called Anale. And I was fortunate enough to be a part of her first cohort. And I gained so many new and invaluable skills that no one would have ever taught me anywhere. And I learned how to be more confident in myself and how I talked about my work. How does that brush my personal branding and sell more compelling story of my ux journey And my upbringings gained a whole network of people to support me on my journey and those people telling me to never give up and despite, you know, actively is job searching for a year and a half action. So now, I work alongside with Elena at this mentorship program to help her with planning Logistics and mentoring other Junior, ux designers, and I just wanted to give back to the community and to the place that helps me to get where I am today.

Dianne: Yeah. What is mentorship to you? Like, it sounds like, that's something that you're passionate about. You said, you're giving back, but it feels like, more to, it feels like, Something that you're really passionate about.

Peter: Yeah, I just really want to help people who have been in the same shoes as I have, I know it's super hard to find a ux job, nowadays, especially without the over saturation of the market and all that stuff. And so, I really empathize with all the junior ux designers right now and I just want to help as many people as I can. To kind of make that process a little bit easier. So that we can have a lot more time to ux designers in the field.

Dianne: Yes, yes. I think that, I mean these influx of Junior designers and a lot of people graduating boot camps and we talked a lot about bootcamp self-taught and like I think they come out of these boot camps with expectations that are not reality and so I think a lot of people get stuck and burnt out and they don't know what to do and they don't know how to get this job. So I think that's like really amazing that you're able to going to go in and help empathize and help these people understand how they could maybe rethink some things. Kind of like what you learned with Elena, you're able to kind of pass on that knowledge and give people that confidence and how to stand out and just how it kind of trickle eights into everything that they do moving forward.

Peter: Yeah. And these types of things that I learned from the mentorship program. Got me so many more interviews and I've never felt more confident in my ux career, and yeah, I just, I was just killing it in the interviews, getting final rounds even though it took a while. But like, I feel very confident in how I talk about myself and like, I know my self-worth and so that's that's really what I want to get across to people, to, to know your self worth and that you're not a bad designer, It's just that, you know, sometimes luck isn't on our side sometimes due to the market stuff. But like, no, you're just, you know, you're an amazing designer and yeah, I can't say anything else. Other than that.

Dianne: Yeah, I mean to everyone, you guys are all amazing designers. You just need to lock is a huge part of it and understanding how to stand out and how to feel confident and what, how to differentiate yourselves. And those interviews totally is like it. Is super important and I think that's an amazing skill to have and I know Elena has that skill. I interviewed her, I hired her and I know that she can pass on some amazing knowledge based on like everything that she's kind of learned. So yes, I completely understand and agree with that. So tell me about kind of this last stage of you have a full-time gig right now? So what was that? What was that interview? What was that process and how did it feel to kind of get this this job?

Peter: So it was an interesting story, so, before I got this full time job, I actually landed an internship at another place, and two weeks about two weeks before I was actually about to start at that internship, they laid off a lot of the people at the company. And so, I ended up not getting the internship and I made a LinkedIn post about it. And one of the recruiters At code in theory. So my LinkedIn posts and they were like, hey let me get you into an interview right now and and I told him well I'm interviewing at all these other places, well I'm in final rounds and you know, if we don't do it now then I don't think we can do it and he was like, okay let's do it rapid fire. So the next few days, I landed interviews with the director and Senior senior designers and Yep. Past everything. I did really well and yeah, that's how I landed the position.

Dianne: It's like, that's, I mean, it's not serendipitous, but it kind of is it's like you were searching for this full-time job. You did all of this and then like it's interesting that this LinkedIn post kind of took you to that level. That's really interesting. And I think that's also like for everyone else like like we were just talking about like there's so many other ways to kind of get jobs, maybe it's not just applying applying maybe it is other ways of doing it. And that's, that's like such an amazing story that that's like, what happened. So you went through the rounds, everything was good and they're like, yes, like you're, you're it. We want you.

Peter: Yeah, and that's where I am today and I couldn't be any happier. I love the people at my company. They are amazing people. Very hardworking, very smart and I can learn so much from for my co-workers and so very grateful to have them.

Dianne: That's amazing. So, so what's next for you? You have full-time gig, you're super happy, where, where do you want to be in the next year? The next two years?

Peter: Yep. So I definitely want to be working for it in house because right now, I'm in I've had an agency right now and one of the reasons why I decided to join an agency was 2x like exponentially grow my career in as short, a short amount of time. So II would be working on a bunch of different projects with a bunch of different clients and I would be able to grow really fast. And I think after, after I think I've grown enough to the point where I can move on to the next level, I definitely want to be working in the house. Specifically on b2c projects b2c companies because that's kind of why I became a ux designer. I wanted to directly impact people and so this is the chance where I get to do that. And yeah that's the reason why.

Dianne: Yeah, that's what snacks and that's gonna happen. I know it is and that's what's exciting. I think it is really great and I think becoming a great designer is being well-rounded and having worked in so many different fields and kind of having all that under your belt and sounds like you are definitely on your way. All of the different spaces that you worked in and kind of where you see yourself going. It sounds like you're just trying to get as much knowledge as possible and grow and learn and kind of find that sweet spot of where after all of this exploration where you find the best fit for you. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story I think it's going to be really impactful to a lot of Junior designers that are in a similar place that you were when you started. And hopefully, they can take some of these tips and tricks that you've kind of mentioned along the way and Benny be able to kind of grow and get to the next stage in their, design Journey. So I really, really appreciate you chatting with me and kind of walking through your story and I'm really excited to follow along and see where you go and where the design career.

Peter: Thank you for having me!

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