Jules Wood was pursuing a rhetoric, writing, and linguistics degree when she began to question the financial situation academia was leaving her in. Jules shares how General Assembly’s UX Design Immersive in Atlanta gave her the skill set, support, and confidence she needed to quickly climb the UX design career ladder. Plus, learn why Jules has no regrets about enrolling in General Assembly’s Catalyst Program to fund her career change with an Income Share Agreement. Find out if General Assembly was worth it for Jules!
What led you to make a career change into UX Design?
Like many bootcamp alumni, I had many jobs before entering the tech industry. I was an English major in college and went on to graduate school where I studied Rhetoric and Writing at UT Knoxville. About halfway through grad school, my financial struggles made me rethink my choices and I pivoted into a business role at a company that did leasing and marketing strategy for multifamily housing. After that, I managed the deli section of a co-op, which was fun and memorable, before moving to Orange County, California. In California, I took on a job at a cloud and email security company for the medical field where I helped onboard medical professionals to our system and walked them through digital HIPPA compliance and safely migrated their data. Over time, I gained more responsibilities, including writing tutorials and eventually collaborating with outsourced engineers on our cloud drive. At an LGBTQ+ meetup, someone mistook me for a UX designer, and even though I wasn’t sure what that was, it sounded exactly like what I was already doing - or wanted to be doing more of. For the next six months, I taught myself about UX design and took short online courses to learn design principles, which I found natural and enjoyable.
What got General Assembly’s UX Design Immersive on your radar?
Throughout those 6 months that I learned about UX, I was also talking to the admissions teams of different UX bootcamps. My best friend is a General Assembly grad and Software Engineer. I have seen his career flourish since graduating from General Assembly, and that made me want to give General Assembly an honest chance.
I decided on General Assembly because of its commitment to diversity which is represented in their campuses, marketing, alumni groups, social media, and even in their mission statement. That mattered so much to me and I saw it was more than just their vision. When I toured the Atlanta campus, it was amazing. I was blown away by the cohorts; the students came from a variety of cultures, careers, and backgrounds that represented the kind of dynamic career landscape and peer group I'd always wanted.
How did you pay for your bootcamp tuition?
When I started speaking with General Assembly, I knew that I couldn't afford it. I was one of the first to sign up for General Assembly’s Catalyst Program, which is an Income Share Agreement program. Because the Catalyst Program covered my bootcamp tuition until such time as my hopefully resulting employment was well established, I only had to take out a small personal loan to cover my living expenses during the course duration. I quit my job and temporarily moved in with my best friend to attend the UX Design Immersive at the Atlanta campus.
For people who don’t get a scholarship, do you recommend they use the Catalyst ISA program?
I do! Most education costs something, and if you don't have the money, that means you will need a loan. Private schools like General Assembly are not recognized as a university, which means federal student loans aren’t typically available to you and tax benefits may or not be available in relation to your loan. In order to afford a bootcamp tuition, that may mean you have to take out a personal loan, and a personal loan needs to be repaid right away, not after you finish your course. With a personal loan, you can't go into forbearance to preserve your credit either. Although I took out a small personal loan for basic expenses, I didn't want to take out a large one for the full cost.
The Catalyst Program was a tremendous incentive for me to make the jump with a bootcamp. Because of the Catalyst Program, I would not be billed until after I started a job that made at least $50k per year. There is a 60-90 day grace period after you graduate, but with my newly learned skills on display thanks to a lot of career coaching, I was actually hired before I even graduated from General Assembly! Once you begin working, after the grace period and the minimum pay threshold, the ISA takes a small percentage of your paycheck for a specific amount of time. In my case, that was just 2 years.
Has it been easy for you to keep up with your ISA payments?
Repaying my ISA hasn't been hard to keep up with since it’s an automatic payment at a fixed percentage. I only need to plan for it when I'm thinking of my paycheck.
Did you have to complete any prework?
Yes, the prework is a requirement to take the course. It mostly primes you for the course and weeds out folks who might not find the work compelling enough to invest in. It isn't a test, you just need to complete it.
What was it like to attend General Assembly’s UX Design bootcamp in Atlanta?
The first half of the bootcamp feels closer to a traditional classroom setting because it’s very coursework heavy. In this first half, everyone has a lot to learn and there are a lot of hands-on exercises. By the second half of the course, we had learned most of the content and began to apply new skills and principles to our assignments, more and more. We did a lot of group work in the second half, which meant a lot of learning about product management and collaboration as well.
General Assembly grades with a pass or fail system where four and five are passing grades. For anyone who failed an assignment, there was always an opportunity to repeat the work. It's an intensive course with high pressure, but I never felt concerned that if I failed something, all hope was lost. My instructors were excellent and the work was hard but fair. The expectations are high, but General Assembly gave me confidence that I could meet those expectations.
What was your Atlanta cohort like? Who were your instructors?
I had a great instructor, co-instructor, and a fantastic cohort. My instructor enforced that we sit somewhere different every day and interact with one another and our ability to collaborate in and out of class was truly aided by that. What makes General Assembly so magical is that everyone in your cohort wants to be there and do their best. That is a rare energy that you don't always see in an educational setting.
What kinds of projects did you build at General Assembly?
For one of my personal projects, I took a bookstore's website and tried to apply mental models of Spotify to automate curated lists as well as recommended "playlists" of sorts, curated by staff. I researched and designed a prototype for an app that used your phone camera to get your body measurements and then paired them with garment measurement data across various retail stores (regardless of how the garment is classified or sized in the store). We also had a real-world group project for an actual product or company, and our final capstone project was for a real client.
For my capstone, my group worked with the non-profit Habitat For Humanity. We built a mobile site for folks getting their first mortgage through Habitat Atlanta, which empowered new and aspiring homeowners by boosting their access to information and helping them reshape their relationship to "home" by emphasizing their autonomy as opposed to the previous relationship they may have had in a landlord setting. We presented to Habitat For Humanity a full design handoff that they could code if they wanted to move forward with it, and last I heard their board was planning for the engineering effort.
Was there a Demo Day for General Assembly’s UX Design Immersive?
There is, but since I moved back to California the day after my course ended, I ended up doing my demo day with the Los Angeles cohort because job-wise it made more sense to do it in my city of residence. Before the course ended, we presented to our clients, and then showcased out portfolios to potential employers and alumni.
We also did a mini demo day midway through the bootcamp where we presented a fully designed app for practice leading up to the demo. It was also good pitch practice. For the mini demo day, we presented to volunteer designer mentors in order to receive feedback and make connections.
How did General Assembly prepare you for the job hunt?
During the bootcamp, we had a class with career services once-a-week. These classes gave us a better grip on how to brand ourselves, how to build our portfolios, and best practices for our resumes. I can't stress enough that much of this is work you need to take time to do yourself, but that weekly career class was a great resource to ask questions and have one-on-ones with career coaches. I had no idea how plugged into LinkedIn I needed to be before General Assembly's career classes and that's how I was recruited for my first UX design job!
Because I moved back to California, I didn't have the benefit of my peers or network all around me while I was doing my job hunt, but General Assembly still connected me with their LA campus for career services and networking. General Assembly's ability to connect me to the career advisor in LA with no lapse in mentorship and guidance impressed me. Now, I can speak with my Atlanta and LA career service advisors and both have been great contacts and advisors to this day.
How did you land your first UX design job?
When I was two-thirds of the way through my course, the product owner at Shippabo contacted me through LinkedIn to see if I was interested in interviewing for contract designer work. General Assembly places an emphasis on using your LinkedIn profile and portfolio website, and that played an important part in my recruitment. I ended up joining the Shippabo team to work closely with the head of product and engineers as a Product Designer.
At that time, I was the only designer at Shippabo which was sometimes intense. Being the sole designer can result in a kind of design-catch-all effect. In this role, I gained firsthand experience of how to work with engineers, how to run agile sprints, how to design better pitch decks, and how to build a product roadmap from the design first approach. There are no set rules on how UX designers work with engineers or product managers, so as a designer you must have faith in yourself and be adaptable. Most importantly, you have to have the approachability and confidence to teach and share what you know while also being comfortable with all you have to learn.
How has your UX career grown since graduating from General Assembly?
After Shippabo, I was hired by ListReports as a Product Designer. I was specifically hired to help balance out the team because I'm a strategy-heavy designer more than a UI specialized or graphic designer. I'm interested in research and information architecture, the design process and how it circulates through Product teams, and how to make low-cost but high impact decisions through low-fi design work. These were areas of focus that ListReports needed. This year, they have promoted me to UX Manager thanks in part to my intense focus on leveling up our design processes and strengthening our understanding of user research and its part in the product cycle.
After graduating from General Assembly, I had confidence in my new skills and in myself, so I did not put “junior UX designer” in my portfolio or on my LinkedIn. Instead, I tell employers what I am capable of. About 30% part of my job in UX is to teach people what I can do and why it's important. If you can't explain why UX is important to your company, then you're going to struggle and it will take you longer to climb any sort of career ladder.
There are a lot of positions that a UX Designer can fill, and I see the potential for many people to move up in this field. Designers today have a choice between working for large companies or startups, managing a freelance portfolio or joining an agency, or pursuing the many new opportunities in the civic and non-profit sectors.
Now that you are over a year into your UX design career, do you still use everything that you learned at General Assembly?
I still use everything I learned at General Assembly! I frequently go back through my notes and course materials to refresh myself or to prepare to teach others a particular concept. What I learned at General Assembly helps me as a UX designer, and also helps me work better with my team and company every day. Just the other day, my team was working on our pricing strategy for a new product, and I worked with the stakeholders to understand our strategy confidence, run an internal survey, and present a learnings deck to the executive team — all things I learned or honed at General Assembly!
As a former academic, what’s your advice for those in academia considering a career change into tech?
The job market is cold out there in academia right now. If you are meant to be in that market, stay. But if you are considering a bootcamp because you are not happy with the job options stretching before you or want a more agile environment, then go for it! And if you're worried about a bootcamp being different than university, it will be!
For those academic folks pivoting into UX, there are a couple of hurdles to leap. Employers may assume that those from academia are used to things taking a long time and therefore that you aren’t able to do agile product design, so you will need to proactively dispel that idea in cover letters, applications, and interviews. Talk about your desire for change and the ways you were scrappy and overcame challenges in any project. Show your confidence in your collaboration skills. Connect your communication acumen to the job description you're digging. Keep learning about the industry you're interested in and discuss what you learn with interviewers, followers, and connections.
Do you see any UX trends emerging in the field for 2021?
The trends I’ve been seeing aren’t necessarily new, but new UX designers should be aware of them.
Was General Assembly worth it for you, Jules?
It's probably the best thing that I've ever done for myself. Even though it was scary and stressful at times, I'm very glad I did it. 80% of the people in my class were in the same boat. They weren't happy with their career and wanted something different, and they got it.
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