Gladia Castro enjoyed working as a program director with the YMCA in San Francisco, but after 10 years, she couldn’t see herself working at nonprofits for her whole life. When she saw General Assembly’s User Experience Design Immersive, she immediately knew that UX Design was her destiny. Gladia tells us about working on a real client project for senior citizens at General Assembly and why she’s encouraging more people of color to get into tech. Today, she’s still inspired by nonprofits, but works with them as a Product Associate for Flipcause!
What was your background before you decided to get into UX Design?
My education background is in kinesiology. I wanted to be a physical therapist or a trainer. I played college basketball and my original dream was to play in the WNBA, but I got knee injuries and couldn’t continue.
Before I took the UX Design Immersive at General Assembly, my career was in nonprofits. I spent 10 years at the YMCA running youth programs for kindergartners through sixth grade. It was actually my first job; I started as a summer counselor, then after-school teacher, and worked my way up into an admin role and then a directorial role. I had grown up with the YMCA and loved doing it.
Two years ago, I realized that I didn't want to work at the YMCA for my whole life, but I also didn't want to go back to a super expensive university. I wanted to find a training program that was quick and would be flexible with my schedule.
How did you learn about UX Design as a career?
I talked to my brother, who is a product designer at SAP (a software company that makes enterprise software to manage business operations and customer relations) about changing careers, and he briefly explained UX design and suggested that I try it.
Even though my brother got a bachelors degree in graphic design, he suggested that I go to General Assembly for their User Experience Design Immersive program because he had a few friends who went there. I pulled out my phone and looked up GA and I had an epiphany. I felt like I was meant to be a UX designer. So I took that route and the rest is history!
Did you feel like you had the right background without having studied design?
My brother told me that I didn’t really need a specific background for UX Design and people of all backgrounds can learn it. You don't need to have a design background – you can easily learn that. The deeper skill is to understand people, have an open mind and be able to adapt quickly to change. UX involves so much psychology, so I use my background in education and the process of empathizing for my job in UX.
What was the General Assembly application and interview process like? Was it competitive?
The application was a little intimidating at first. I worried they would ask me crazy questions about design, but it was really simple and seamless. You start with an interview, which they take very seriously.
GA has a part-time course, but based on my research, I wanted to get the most out of it, so I chose the full-time course. They want to make sure that you are really motivated because this is an intense 10 weeks. During the interview, a staff member gave me a problem to solve about shopping and asked how I would fix it. I wasn't sure how to present it so I created a PowerPoint of it. I think that showed them I was very serious, and within a day they told me I had been accepted.
One of my biggest concerns was financing, but General Assembly made it super simple. They have a great system for registering and getting payments set up.
Once you started at General Assembly in San Francisco, what was the learning experience and schedule like?
The Immersive was pretty much a 9am to 5pm job. The first half of the day was always a lecture. We had a pretty big cohort so they split us into two classrooms. Then throughout the 10 weeks, we built five projects. We would take one or two weeks to learn about a concept, then put that knowledge towards a project. They just went over so much information so quickly, but it was super helpful. I look back now and still think a lot of what I learned was useful. It was a really cool experience building relationships with other students and colleagues.
What kind of backgrounds did people in your cohort come from?
There was definitely a wide range of backgrounds in my cohort. For example, one student was a neuroscientist; another was the operations manager for the Olympics. But we realized that we all have the same story – that we want to start a new career. I was one of only two Hispanic people in the course. My goal now is to get as many people of color to join tech and try to recruit them to my company too.
Our cohort was super close and full of really bright people. We were like a family. When you spend so much time together and go through the same experience, you build really strong relationships. We're still really good friends now.
What specific UX skills, tools, and technologies did you learn about in the course?
We learned everything that we needed to know, but looking back now I’m in a job, the curriculum barely just scraped the surface. We went over user research, affinity mapping, post-its, and user interface design. They took a bit more time to teach us the foundation of concepts like user research and prototyping. We mainly worked with design software called Sketch. When it came to UI or how to select certain colors in the graphic design sense of it, There wasn’t enough time to go in-depth into color theory because the class was 10 weeks long.
My main concern was "What if I fall behind?" But the GA team and the outcomes team put us at ease in that process. The learning itself was really overwhelming, so having someone look out for you and tell you what to do and how to network was super helpful.
You mentioned that you worked on five projects during the program. Were any of those projects with real clients?
Yeah. We started out working on super simple projects, then moved to group projects. The last project was a client project. I was assigned to a super small startup which was still in the idea phase. It was an app to help loved ones keep track of senior citizen relatives using an Apple watch and an iPhone app. We designed the app so that caregivers could keep track of the vitals of their loved one and the caregiver would be alerted if they fell. The senior citizen just had to worry about wearing the Apple watch.
During user research, we actually went to a senior home and interviewed people over 60 and saw what technology they use. It was really eye-opening because most apps are built for the general public and seniors are often forgotten. It taught me that when we design apps, we have to take the user into consideration.
Because the company was so new, the client was super involved and we had to tread very carefully. That helped me learn how to speak to clients. The whole experience was really valuable and super gratifying.
In addition to working on these real projects, how else did GA prepare you for job hunting?
The outcomes team taught us how to prepare our resumes and LinkedIn profiles and really prepared us to network; how to reach out to someone for a coffee and have questions ready. That was really awesome.
I also learned how to build my brand and figure out how I want people to interpret me when they glance at my LinkedIn page. You’re not guaranteed to get a job after General Assembly. The course is designed to give you the basic tools so you can keep learning on the job.
How did you approach the job hunt?
I was in a grind-hustle mode throughout the whole course. I would attend networking events and reach out to designers. I had a mentor who was a designer at Airbnb and that was super helpful. It was building those relationships, networking, putting myself out there, and volunteering at events so that I could get in for free and get to know the people who ran the event.
We were also encouraged to ask random designers in the industry for feedback on our portfolios. It's a little intimidating at first, but what you get out of it is just so worth it.
How did you find your job at Flipcause?
After I graduated, I wrote a Medium blog post called, "Why I Quit My Job to Become a UX Designer." It was such a hit. My brother shared it with his network and I shared it on Facebook and Twitter. Someone at Leanplum in San Francisco came across that post, and that actually got me my first UX internship. Since I published that piece, a lot of current students from GA, and random people interested in UX design have reached out to me. It's been a really humbling experience.
Once I was done with my internship at Leanplum, I looked on Muse.com, Indeed.com, AngelList, and LinkedIn. Most of the employers would say, "Oh, you're doing great but we need more experience."
I came across an ad on Craigslist for a Customer Success Manager at Flipcause. It wasn’t a UX role, but I fell in love with the company’s mission to help nonprofits. I was meant to work here and I decided I would work here no matter what. I applied for the customer success job, reached out to the CEO via LinkedIn and Facebook, and emailed him. About two weeks later he responded to me saying that the position had been filled, but that they were looking to add someone as a Product Associate, who troubleshoots bugs and works on UX/UI. He called me in for an interview and I'm still here. It's been an awesome experience and I'm so glad I stalked the CEO!
What does Flipcause do and what does your Product Associate role involve?
Flipcause is a cross-platform software that integrates everything nonprofits need – crowdfunding, volunteer recruitment, event planning, and donations – into one piece of affordable software. Our mission is to work with small nonprofits that don't have tons of funding and don't know where to start, and take care of technology for them. We believe in helping nonprofits make a greater impact with fewer resources. We're growing like crazy because there's nobody else doing this. It's just so great to see the impact on nonprofits.
My role is always evolving and we're a startup so I wear many hats. I do QA (quality assurance), product design, and UX/UI. I interact with developers, making sure that our product is working well and that our clients are satisfied. If there are any issues, we try to troubleshoot and fix the issues right away. Some days I may be working on marketing and building a pretty UI, and then other days I'm tackling UX issues and redesigning certain things based on client feedback. It’s really exciting.
Now that our product team is growing, I'm bringing new ideas. We recently switched to Sketch on my suggestion; before that, they were using Photoshop.
How large is the product team at Flipcause?
There are three people: my project manager, myself, and a customer experience person. We also have a team of developers overseas. In 2018, we're planning to scale a lot. We hope to bring on some more product managers so it will be interesting to expand after being in a smaller team.
Are you using the skills and tools that you learned at General Assembly? Do you feel like GA had fully prepared you for the role?
I feel like GA prepared me with the basic UX tools, and the rest I learned along the way in my internship and at Flipcause. General Assembly was the foundation. The Outcomes team told us that being successful is a matter of finding your voice and your brand, going with it, and being confident in yourself. I took that approach and ran with it, and it worked for me. We all get impostor syndrome at some point, wondering if you belong or if you’re doing the right thing, but you have to convince yourself and be confident.
My team at Flipcause is super close; we work really well together and we're always open to feedback. They love that I went to GA and hearing about the tools and techniques I learned there. For example, Flipcause wanted to focus on personas, which I learned about at General Assembly. Now I'm leading a workshop on personas and using some of those resources from GA.
Since you've been at Flipcause how do you feel you've grown as a UX designer?
Flipcause takes growth very seriously and they want employees to grow. I've learned so much, and a lot of times I've had to learn things on my own, and I'm okay with that. But whenever I need help, I know who to reach out to.
I’ve realized how important communication is, and it makes me want to eventually learn to code so I can better communicate with our developers. That's probably my next goal. You don't need to know how to code for this job, but I'd like to know the different languages within a product so that I can become a better product manager and UX designer.
To keep learning, I always take at least 30 minutes a day to read new articles on Medium and other newsletters (uxdesign.cc, Sarah Doody, Invision, etc). I want to stay ahead of the game because our field is constantly changing, and there's always new software coming out.
How do you think your background in nonprofits is proving useful in your UX role?
I was always thinking on the run in non-profits, and those nine years have really prepared me and helped me grow at Flipcause, and as a UX and product professional.
My background involved a little bit of psychology as well. Knowing how to empathize and knowing the people who you're serving is so important. At the YMCA I found that the curriculum that worked for a first-grader wouldn't work for a sixth grader. And the same goes for any kind of product – you must understand your clientele.
The ability to learn on the go is also beneficial in adapting to new circumstances. One day I might be working on a data project, and another day I’ll be doing something creative, so my mind has to totally switch. It's definitely challenging, but it's an exciting challenge.
What role do you think GA has played in your success? Could you have got to where you are by self-teaching?
I think that depends on the person. Personally, I need some sort of direction. I like structure in my education. I'm a visual learner, so the hands-on projects and interacting with people at General Assembly was really helpful for me.
How important do you think it is to be involved with the UX community in your city. Have you been able to stay involved with GA or joined other groups?
My GA classmates and I have a Slack channel to stay connected with each other. Anytime there's great news or there's a job opening at our company, we post it there.
I joined Hexagon UX Community for women to stay in touch with what women in our sector are doing. I would like to attend more networking events. I want to share my story more often because I know there are so many people out there who are in the same position that I was in. I want to give them the sense that it's doable.
What advice do you have for people who are thinking about making a career change by going through a UX bootcamp?
My advice would be to do your research. Don't just jump into it if you're not quite sure. You know yourself better than anyone else, so be aware of that.
Once you make that decision, plan out some goals so that you can hold yourself accountable and keep yourself sharp. If I hadn't written myself any goals, I wouldn't have been as hungry to succeed. Some people have the luxury to go to school and then take their time to find a job, but if you're someone who needs a job right away, know that you have to work extra hard to get to where you need to be.
Don't be afraid to network. That was huge for me. Listen to some podcasts. That was really helpful for learning about what other UX designers do and how they started out in UX. And then do general research, see what's trending, and never give up. If you put your mind to it, you can totally do it. It's about having the right attitude and knowing that things aren't going to be easy – they're going to be hard – and just embracing that.