Mike Walsh took a break from a career in social media to dive into a User Experience Design Immersive at General Assembly this year. When he settled in New York, Mike needed a flexible and reliable housing option. And as an avid follower of startups, Common was the perfect option. We chat with Mike about how travelling has informed his new UX Design skills, the benefits of a flexible and connected home at Common, and his next move!
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Tell us about your life before bootcamp.
My undergrad was in Communications at the University of Colorado in 2002. That degree has actually become even more relevant today.
I started my career as a professional mascot from 2000 to 2010 in Colorado. Eventually, I was coordinating mascots for a team that had four different characters. During this time I was back in school (studying Dance) and Facebook was making it’s way through the college ranks. Around 2008, when Facebook Pages were released, I started using one to promote the characters and the team and really started to understand the whole world of social media.
Upon moving back to my hometown Madison, Wisconsin I began working as a social media manager for a local non-profit. Next, I was hired to consult on social media at University of Wisconsin Athletics. I also, helped run Social Media Breakfast Madison, an organization that hosted a monthly talk about social media.
In the year before moving to New York for General Assembly, I spent a year travelling around the world, building my blog called Flight for Sight to raise awareness about vision issues.
When did you decide to leave your career in social media and start to think about UX design?
I was playing around with my own idea for an app and I was looking into learning code. I was applying to coding bootcamps; I got into New York Code & Design Academy and made it to the interview portion at Turing, but one of the best decisions I made all year was to not go to code school. I felt I could be a bigger influence in the world learning design. Being a web developer doesn’t fit my personality.
What do you like about UX Design that you didn’t find in web development?
Being creative is what I like about UX Design. During my Flight for Sight, I travelled around the world, writing a blog and interviewing people who were blind and/or advocates for blind people. People I interviewed included a legally blind dancer in New York, the principal for a school for the blind in Ethiopia, Administrator for the New Zealand Blind Foundation, and I also met the person who drafted Lebron James, Gordon Gund, who is completely blind.
A huge part of UX is researching, interviewing people and learning about their needs. When I made this connection in class, it was a serendipitous moment.
Did you decide on General Assembly’s UX Design Immersive right away, or did you look at other schools too?
I looked into Tradecraft in San Francisco and General Assembly as well as Designation in Chicago.
The timing worked out well for GA. GA offers rolling cohorts, so I decided to start in September 2015. I’m glad I didn’t start immediately when I was accepted to GA; the cohort I’m a part of is pretty great! General Assembly also offers a multitude of offer classes and workshops. I am looking forward to a lot more learning!
Plus, NEW YORK CITY. I have always been a fan of this city and I am SO lucky to be able to live here. As much as I love technology, here, I can escape it and go do art related things on a whim, like attempt to get tickets for Hamilton. When you are surrounded by so many industries they can build off of one another!
Did you need any sort of technical background to get in to General Assembly? Did you have to do a coding challenge?
There was a challenge where I had to design a product. I had used a wireframing app for the project I was working on myself. So that experience came in handy.
The General Assembly application consisted of a phone interview. Next, they gave me a design challenge. Finally, I had to present what I came up with during my final interview over Google Hangout. If you are in New York, you can come to the campus.
Being new to New York, what are you doing to break into the New York tech scene?
To be honest, doing a full-time immersive course can wear you out, so going to meetups can be difficult right now, but a lot of the people that live at Common are in the tech space so that is an added bonus.
When you live in Madison, Wisconsin, you eventually meet everyone, for lack of a better way of putting it. Personally, I’m excited to be in a place like New York, which is full of new meetups, people, etc. There are no excuses to not make headway in terms of learning and constantly meeting people. I look forward to making more awesome connections.
How did you find out about Common as a housing option in New York?
I believe I saw a retweet about Common from Dave Morin, a friend, early Facebook employee and entrepreneur (and Common investor from Slow Ventures). When I was interviewed by General Assembly, they mentioned Common again- and I totally already knew about it! I listened to an interview with Brad Hargreaves, Common’s founder, and thought it sounded like an interesting idea- I’m always following tech startups.
When you’re the first customer of something like this, you’re kind of part of the team almost because they’re growing, they have their typical growing pains while they’re figuring out stuff. You kind of get to feel that you’re a part of it.
We have these monthly dinners to welcome the new roommates. I feel like I’m part of something that could potentially be great and big and I’m excited to watch it grow.
What about co-living appeals to you?
The community aspect was definitely very appealing to me. Brad emphasized that in his interview and on the Common website. Everything- utilities, furniture- is taken care of and built into the payment. All you need is clothes; you don’t even need a toothbrush. But do bring some toothpaste!
I’m brand new to New York. So I go to this building- there are 19 rooms, and that means I’m going to have 18 friends. We’re all on a Slack channel so if I post, “Hey, I’m gonna go get something to eat, who wants to join me?” Immediately, someone is likely to be available.
I love that the Common house communicates on a Slack channel!
It’s a great way of communicating. We have these random movie nights where we vote on a movie. That’s why Common works. You immediately have these people that are looking out for you, plus the organization and vetting efforts made by Common. You know your housemates are probably not crazy- and if they are, it’s a good crazy. I am also excited for the artist-in-residence program. Soon we are going to have our first artist living with us.
Are there other bootcampers living at Common?
There are a couple of people from Fullstack Academy and I am currently the only General Assembly student.
That’s been an advantage- one of my floor-mates is a full-time designer so it’s fun to chat with him about design. He’s a visual designer but we still have a lot to talk about, and everyone is interested in UX so it feels pretty cool to be in this community. On our floor, there is a venture capitalist, a visual designer and a developer- we could start a company together. Shark Tank has been a popular show on our floor!
Bootcamps can also be an intense time-commitment. Are you able to focus in the house while living with 18 other people?
Yeah, there’s so much going on that you feel you may miss something, but it’s a matter of focus. When it comes to a GA bootcamp, you get out of it what you put into it. So if I know I’m spending a couple of hours here and not spending time in Common, it’s a conscious decision – and vice-versa. If I choose to spend less time on bootcamp stuff and a little more time on Common, that’s a choice.
I could very easily spend all day on campus and not do much at the house and still be supported by my housemates; it’s up to you how you want to spend your time.
And now you’re about to graduate from General Assembly!
Yeah, we’re working on our final project.
What is your final project?
Final projects are client-based, which is cool because it’s a real product working with a real company.
For my project, I’m working with UniFi Scholars, an educational non-profit that instructs high school juniors and seniors about the financial challenges in college; learning about financial aid and what colleges offer. This is an ever-changing field and can be super confusing; even the people teaching it need to be taught about the latest developments in financial aid.
What are you building for UniFi Scholars?
We are designing the website for administrators to upload material and teachers to download course materials to teach. We also want to site to be a place for administrators and instructors to callaborate on materials. UniFi Scholars has a general website now but we are trying to build something that would be a better resource for them than Google Drive, which is where they share materials now.
It’s quite a challenge in that we want to make something that works for this group of people that’s better than what Google offers. It’s going well and I’m learning a lot. Working with the client is a great way to end the UX Immersive. We’re surrounded by people who can give us all sorts of advice about each specific situation, which informs our decisions as UX Designers.
Tell us about the role of a UX team in a project like this?
The UX team does competitive/comparative analysis, user interviews, create personas, build user flows, sketch, wireframe, prototype testing, iterate on wireframe, more testing … and so on. We build an appendix which contains all of the research we’ve done and how we got to that point. The beauty of this course is that you learn that design is not about your ego and what you think should be designed but instead, it’s all about what your research is telling you. We learn about that constantly.
Visual design is very much what you think is beautiful and UX is about helping your user get to what they needs.
We talk with web developers to make sure the design is doable in terms of what platform our client will need to use. We don’t want to leave our clients with a great design but no way to implement it, so we definitely are in contact with web developers (who are all over the GA campus)! There’s even one person in our class who has a strong development background- it’s great to have a classmate like that.
Is your class diverse in terms of age, gender, race and life experience?
Yeah, definitely. Of 20 students, there are 13 women and 7 men. There’s a guy who has a development background, there are people who left their jobs to make a career change, someone even came from Australia.
It’s interesting that the class skews female.
Works for me! I find it troubling there is such gender gap in tech. My whole class is incredibly smart. The employers who hire them are going to be very lucky! There is a great documentary out right now called “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap”. Everybody should see this.
You’re graduating in 3 days- what is your goal after graduating?
There’s a lot in my head right now. I will continue to work on the project I started before I came here. I am excited to apply everything I learned. I believe the there is a tremendous opportunity to build a calendar application that will help people plan their best lives. There is so much going on around us and the details are scattered all over the place.
At GA, they talk a lot about outcomes and career so I feel really excited; I’ve made a lot of great connections so I’m not super scared about the future. It’s been great and Brad is extremely supportive.
I definitely see myself as more of a startup guy as long as I believe in a mission. I’m one who is willing and able to take a chance- success only comes after failure so…
Do you want to stay in New York after you graduate?
Yes, I do want to stay in New York.
Would you stay at Common even after you graduate from the UX bootcamp?
Common has two buildings now, and is opening another more buildings in other parts of the city, and around the states. I’m not sure yet where exactly I want to live, but because there’s no lease at Common, I can hop around the city. That’s a cool option!