Student Spotlight: Jose on How He Came Back to Design

Just because you stopped something doesn’t mean you won’t go back to it (+ a Co.Lab event tonight!!)

May 26, 2021

According to Merriam-Webster:

grit (noun) is the firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger

In that case, we’d say Jose Ortega has grit running in his veins. Because despite the many external and internal struggles he faced through his years of a career-transition, Jose still hadn’t let go of his dream of being a product designer.

Sometimes the pieces fall right into place and all works out smoothly; sometimes we unexpectedly switch directions and step into new spaces we initially hadn’t known existed; and sometimes we go back to re-explore and rediscover old opportunities that we thought were lost.

Jose’s story embodies that last scene, capturing the twists and turns we frequently take to get to that next milestone in our careers. Hailing from a non-traditional background, he was able to leverage his learnings so far to move forward and today, he’s a proud member of the COLAB4 cohort as product designers.

But before we dive in--hold up what’s this? A free event highlighting advice and tips on landing your first dev job? That’s right folks 😌 Our very own Alexander Calia from COLAB3 is coming to talk tonight on his career-transition and job-hunting experience! His name might sound familiar as we did a feature on his story a few weeks back.

Come and sign up for the event:

Join an Upcoming Cohort!

Get real-world experience to land your dream role in tech. Join us as a Product Manager, Designer or Developer, and put your skills into practice by shipping a real MVP! 🚀

A Rocky Start

As with many of our Co.Laborators, Jose walked a rather non-traditional path before he got product design.

Quickly after graduating from college with a degree in multimedia animation, he realized the limited opportunities in the field and went into the restaurant and hospitality industry instead. Despite being a native in the San Francisco Bay area, he didn’t know much about the tech industry. His perception of the space was only of software engineers, marketers, and the faces of Big Tech executives like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

Jose later stepped into an operations role in two startups, Zendesk and KeepTrucking, and it wasn’t until a serendipitous conversation at an after-work social when Jose learned that he could leverage his background in tech.

“I had a conversation with someone, who at the time I didn’t realize was a UX designer. He asked a bit about me - what I studied and what I did before tech. After telling him about my background, he paused a bit and said, ‘so you have a design background and you’ve worked in customer experience…why aren’t you doing UX?’

You have customer experience so you care about the customers but you also understand the business of things. You understand how to upsell particular products but you also have to serve particular customers. You also know the principles of design theories from school. So why aren’t you doing it?’”

Simple question, but one he hadn’t thought of before.

A catalyst set off and Jose decided to go for a bootcamp as well. But Jose didn’t find it as beneficial and thought the curriculum didn’t set him up for success in terms of a career transition.

Add that to a most discouraging experience when he tried to build his network in the tech space, from even individuals in his personal social circle. There was a particular bias and prejudice against Jose’s background and ethnicity and developed this notion that perhaps...this wasn’t a career choice for him.

“I recognized the biases that were exhibited in many of the interactions I had. The one thing coming to mind would be the colour of my skin. They didn’t say it, they’d use other means. They’d say I didn’t have experience but hey, this was why I that I could get experience. I even went through something where I was outright discouraged to pursue design, the reason being I was too new and thus wouldn’t have much of a shot.

I also tried to meet people and network and I didn’t see any of my own people, or people who were non-Caucasian designers and it felt like I was stuck in a place where there was no one that could represent me.”

It was the biggest obstacle Jose had to face and at that time with imposter syndrome at its highest peak, he decided to pause in his transition into UX design.

“Silicon Valley is like an isolated area, even if you’re a native of the Bay Area and especially if you’re a person of colour. The word, ‘techie’, gets a mixed reaction of negative and positive sentiments because you see so many people from outside the Bay Area with relevant education and experience entering the space.

I want to be an example for people with less privileged backgrounds that this [breaking into tech] is possible. If you see myself transitioning from restaurants or jobs for a POC to work in those tech companies, then you can do it too. But I struggled, like everybody else, to try and get accepted and fit in.”

That was one of the reasons why Jose joined Co.Lab. Our message of you belonging in tech, no matter what background you come from, personally resonated with him and pulled him into the community.

“I feel like a lot of people have this attitude towards tech where it’s only open to a particular group or a certain age group or gender of people. That made me want to be an advocate of the message that you do belong in tech, you do belong in those particular jobs. You are qualified for those positions - we just need to break the barrier.”

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

2020 however was a year of many new beginnings. The Covid-19 pandemic, for all the harrowing news and events it brought, allowed many to stop and reflect on our lifestyles, habits, and career progressions.

After four years of a pause, Jose decided to revisit UX design and approach the entering of this space with a different attitude. He attended another bootcamp, this time his experience a lot better and in turn encouraged him to start the job hunt for his first design role.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon (Unsplash)

So far, Jose’s at 600 applications and 290 rejections and still counting…

What was the mindset he decided to take on this time around?

“Be yourself and don’t be different. Be who you are, know your experiences, gain your experiences, and learn how to make them transferrable to that job you want. The only advice I wish people told me before is ‘don’t be afraid, don’t give up’, compared to ‘you need to do this, you need to do that’.

And it’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be upset, it’s okay to have those emotions. If you hold it in, it’s going to burn really fast.”

How’s that for grit?

A Common Theme

So what’s something consistent throughout Jose’s job-search these days? The comment he’s received on how there’s a lack of collaboration experience. Jose could count the exact number of times he’s heard it:

“I’ve been through a series of about twelve phone-screens and most of them told me I don’t have any collaboration experience. I wish my boot-camps had those offerings, but I was missing that.

It’s something I push for people who're looking to get into design: collaborate with somebody. Find somebody who is in your team, in your cohort—no matter what you’re doing, just collaborate. Either with a PM or an engineer or even another designer.”

Jose spoke to the difficulties and key takeaways he’d gotten when managing expectations within the team. “My discipline mentor suggested that I be more mindful and have a little more empathy when it comes to what I’m saying to the team.” Familiar words were said before in our profile feature of Co.Lab’s design mentor, NeYane.

And true to his goal of gaining collaboration experience, Jose is already learning what a product manager does and what to expect from them when working on a project together. This in turn will enable him to be a better designer for the team.

Jose and his team!

As with all our feature spotlights, we’ll leave the juicy stuff to the very end (aka Product Showcase Day 👀). But as a sneak peek, Jose’s team is looking into the financial savings and rewards problem space, aiming for an educational way to save that money.

It looks like the team is jiving along to the finish line and we’re all rooting for you!

Interested in getting product design experience in a team-environment? Why not sign-up for the upcoming cohort in Co.Lab? Don’t miss your chance to be a part of something great in building real tech solutions for real people 🚀🚀🚀

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