Written By Jess Feldman
Rena Silverman was a journalist for 15 years before a move to California inspired her to develop her technical skill set at Berkeley UX/UI Boot Camp (offered in collaboration with edX). Three months after graduating from the program, she used her network to first land a job at Run The World as their Chief UX Writer and then, a few months later, at Truebill as a Content Strategist. Rena shares her personal experience as a Berkeley Boot Camp student, plus her insights on what it takes to make a career change into UI/UX Design today!
What inspired you to pivot from journalism into UI/UX design with Berkeley UX/UI Boot Camp?
I come from a family of classical musicians, so I knew that I would also be going into some form of the arts. My father always told me, whatever you do, don't be an artist. It's a really difficult life. Much to his chagrin, I became a writer and wrote about photography. I was hired by National Geographic when I was 25, wrote a book for National Geographic about women photographers, and then joined the New York Times Lens Blog, which is the photography section of the New York Times.
When I decided to move to California, I already had my eye on user experience (UX). I found out about Berkeley UX/UI Boot Camp from a friend of mine who thought this could be a great opportunity for me given my background in writing, photography, and visual arts. The fact that the boot camp operates under UC Berkeley also attracted me. I knew the reputation of the college and assumed that it would have high-quality instruction. After I looked into it, I realized that this career path was perfect for me because I'm a logical thinker and I hate bad user experiences. I spoke with a few Berkeley Boot Camp students, and was impressed by the program’s real sense of community and awesome teachers.
What was the Berkeley UX/UI Boot Camp application and interview process like?
I had to fill out a standard application that included my background, then a phone interview. After that I did a timed, open-book test that involved basic design laws. As a journalist, I approached it as such: I researched while I wrote, but I also knew a lot of the information from my photography background. The test was timed not so much to see how many correct answers I got, but to see how motivated I was as a student to complete it thoroughly. Once I was accepted in the boot camp, Berkely gave me a list of recommended books I could read before the first day of class as well as a list of materials that were required for the class.
Did you teach yourself any design skills before the boot camp?
I read two books on UX writing — Strategic Writing for UX and Nicely Said: Writing for the Web — before applying to the boot camp. I felt that I would take design and mix it with my background in journalism. It turns out that the processes are very similar!
Since the boot camp is affiliated with a university, did you have the option to take out student loans?
No; Berkeley Boot Camp offers a payment plan or you can take out your own loans. I was able to cover the cost, but many people in my cohort took out loans.
What was a typical day like at Berkeley UX/UI Boot Camp?
Every class was about three hours long. Our instructor would organize and share a slide deck with us on Slack so that we could review it ahead of each class. The slide deck gave us an idea on that day’s lecture and activities. We never spent a whole class just listening to the instructor. He would give an introduction to that day’s lesson and then break us up into groups to do the exercises. After that, we would come back together to review the exercise. While we were working on our exercises the TAs would walk around and assess our work and answer questions. What I liked is that I could use them as much or as little as I needed. If I was in a more independent mood, I could just try to do it myself with my teammates, but if we were stuck, we could ask them for guidance.
Our lessons were always integrated into one another to be brought together at a later time. For example, we had an introduction to Adobe XD and then created an animation that would later be applied to a different design scheme in our group project. At the end of the day, we would give presentations of what we created. The feedback from my cohort was the most amazing part! Berkeley Boot Camp really stressed the importance of feedback in the UI/UX design process. Our instructors not only stressed the processes and the approach, but also the soft skills like providing feedback and the humility you need to have when working on a team.
Did the teaching style match your learning style?
Berkeley made the curriculum very accessible for all types of learners. I learned by doing as much as I learned by listening at the boot camp! In my cohort, there was a main instructor and two or three teaching assistants. The boot camp made sure to teach every subject so it reached each type of learner.
What did you learn at Berkeley UX/UI Boot Camp?
Were your instructors also Berkeley professors?
Since the boot camp is [offered through] an extension school of UC Berkeley, our boot camp instructors were employed by the boot camp. The instructor I had was working as a UX Designer at LinkedIn. Our TAs worked at startups. We also had a substitute teacher that worked at Wells Fargo. All of them had an amazing amount of experience behind their belts.
What kinds of projects did you work on while at Berkeley Boot UX/UI Camp?
We had four major projects throughout the program. The first two group projects tasked us with building an app. We had three weeks to complete these projects, and they taught us the process to design an app, such as user testing and user research.
Our third group project was a real-world project to redesign a government website in about four weeks. A government website has around 500 items in each navigation menu, which is like walking through a maze! My group decided to work on the United States Department of Agriculture website. Our to-do list included user flow, research, and heuristic evaluation. In order to redesign the website, we conducted a research plan, tested flow, did a usability matrix, created user personas, analyzed the navigation, cardsorted, redesigned the site map, created wireframes, prototyped, and created a style tile.
Our next group project involved redesigning a nonprofit website, where we created a mobile and desktop version. For our final group project, we could choose what we wanted to build. My group decided to build a CRM or database for fitness instructors. It was amazing and we are still working on this project on the side!
After graduating from Berkley UX/UI Boot Camp, which job roles did you feel qualified to apply for?
Most of my cohort applied for Junior UX Designer or UX Research positions. I leveraged my journalism experience to exclusively apply for UX writing jobs. In the end, I landed jobs that combine all of my skills. My new position pulls from what I learned at the boot camp and in journalism.
How did Berkeley UX/UI Boot Camp prepare you for the job hunt?
Throughout the program, there were career tracks to complete, including helping you with your resume and career goals. I personally did not get around to completing the career tracks until the end of the program. For the last three weeks of the program, I was connected with my career coach, Irene, and I cannot say enough about her! I told her all of my skills, and she helped me to position myself. We discussed my career path and decided that I had a high chance to land a job as a UX writer or content strategist with my past experience. She was hands-on with my resume and helped me to tweak it for every job that I was applying to. Irene had me send out on average 10 applications per week and when I finally received an offer, she helped me with the negotiation process. She was with me until the end.
Did you have access to career assistance?
Yes, the boot camp team is flooding me with emails! The boot camp does an amazing job of including boot camp graduates. I can also still reach out to my career coach Irene. I have lifetime access to all the materials I ever learned at the boot camp. I am connected with my cohort and teachers through the Slack channel too. It's a real community!
How did you get your job at Truebill?
After acquiring this new skillset, I reached out to an old colleague, Andrew, who I used to work with when I was freelancing at Instagram. Andrew works for a startup, Run the World, which is a virtual event platform for community leaders to help them engage and grow their communities. Both CEOs were women, and it made me really want to work there. I spoke with Andrew and the CEO, and things just clicked!
After a few months at Run The World, I was offered a Content Strategy role at Truebill. Since I have been using this product myself for the last year, I made the decision to take the position. I’ve been there a couple of weeks, and it’s absolutely amazing. I have never been happier in any job in my life.
Could you give us an example of the types of projects you’re working on?
At Truebill, I write advertisements and focus on users — their pain points and user journeys — a skill I learned at [the] boot camp. Most of the time, I’m working under the Head of Growth and a creative team that was literally built from someone’s dream. It’s amazing.
Are you using all of the skills that you learned at the boot camp?
Yes, I learned how to use Figma at the boot camp, which I use nearly every day. I also learned to empathize with the user, which is a huge part of creating digestible content that converts. But, most of all, the group work and soft skills I learned from the boot camp really prepared me to work collaboratively with my team.
What does a typical day as a content strategist look like?
We have several standups a week within our creative team so we can align on what we’re working on, as well as our goals for the day and week. My boss then makes sure that we have meeting-free zones so we can really focus on creating. I’ve been writing a lot of ad scripts, mainly for TikTok, which has been amazing. It’s awesome, especially, once the video editor interprets my words and brings them to life. It’s an amazing, collaborative experience and my team is literally a dream team.
What skills are you drawing on from your previous career as a journalist in your new career today as a UX designer and content strategist?
As a journalist, I had to write an article in a short amount of time without mistakes, and that made me capable of working at a fast pace and able to handle pressure. At Truebill, we similarly have a few projects going on at the same time, which I’m able to manage in a timely manner. But most of all, stories are stories, whether they’re made for newspapers or advertisements. Telling a good story is something I’ll never be able to unlearn, and it fuels my career every day.
What advice do you have for other boot campers just beginning their job search?
Be extremely patient and don't take the first job offer. Go back to the career coach and tell them what you have been offered. Check the company out thoroughly and do your research before accepting any position. Don't be desperate for a job. Instead be persistent and take precautions. My job hunt took me about three months.
Would you recommend that other writers and journalists consider Berkeley UX/UI Boot Camp to make a career change?
I have a lot of friends from journalism asking me about this and I refer all of them to this program! This is a really hard time for writers and journalists, and UX can expand your skillset and open up new opportunities. As a writer, it is the most practical career change you could make. The parallel between journalism and UX is logic, which makes it a smooth transition from one career to the other. Berkeley even touches upon UX writing in the course.
What has been the biggest roadblock in your journey to a career in UX design?
My only roadblock was the uncertainty about getting a job after graduating from the boot camp. Some people chose to go back to school to study another tech specialization. I worried that I might have to continue my education to find a job too. On a practical level, my advice is to save up some money (preferably using Truebill!) as a safety net because there will most likely be three or four months after you graduate that you will spend unemployed.
Was this boot camp worth it for you? Are you happy that you changed careers into UX design?
Absolutely! I don't know what I would have done without the boot camp. Beside the skillset, the boot camp gave me confidence. Berkeley gave me a toolbox, and now I have full control over those tools. Before, I was only reading books. Now that I have graduated, it feels like I have worked at a few jobs through my boot camp training.
Jess Feldman is an accomplished writer and the Content Manager at Course Report, the leading platform for career changers who are exploring coding bootcamps.
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