Meng He is a volunteer instructor for part of Startup Institute’s immersive Web Design program. She has been a UX designer for eight years, and joined Startup Institute as a way to give back and help out other budding UX designers. Meng tells us about how she grew into a UX designer, why she was drawn to teaching at Startup Institute, and what she sees in her most successful students.
Tell us about your background and experience as a UX designer.
I’ve been a UX designer for eight years, helping early-stage startups find product/market fit. I’ve led product strategy and design at early-stage startups in e-commerce, social media, travel, security, mobile payments, and dating apps.
My most recent role was as Chief Product Officer at SocialSign.in, a WiFi marketing company which helps bridge the online-offline gap of retail. I’ve spent years helping others build companies, and now I’m excited to do the same for myself.
What did you study at college? Does a “UX Design” degree exist?
In high school, I didn’t know what career options were available to me or what I wanted to do with my life. While school counselors encouraged students to not box themselves in by recommending general liberal arts schools, I attended Parsons School of Design in New York City, originally to study fashion. In the first year, Parsons requires students to enroll in a foundation year to expose you to all facets of design. That’s when I was first introduced to what we now call “UX Design” and realized my strength in this area over what I had idealized in a fashion career. I graduated as valedictorian in Communication Design from Parsons in 2008.
How did you first get interested in UX Design?
“UX Design” is a relatively new term for something people have practiced for much longer. UX design is essentially problem solving and exercising empathy. After Parsons, I worked with a professor who built a small design studio with an impressive client roster. Although it wasn’t called UX then, this is where I began my career in understanding customers, and designing technology experiences and products to encourage behaviors to meet both the customers’ goals, and business objectives.
How did you first hear about and get involved with Startup Institute NYC?
I met John Lynn, Startup Institute’s New York Program Manager, when we both worked from the Techstars office. John invited me in to give a brief talk and Q&A on the unglamorous lessons learned as a designer in tech. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and wasted time, money, and resources over the years. I hoped to speak on those experiences and help people avoid the same mistakes.
What drew you to get involved with the Startup Institute?
No one makes it alone. I owe my career to the people who gave their time to teach me, open doors for me, and take a chance on me. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to do the same. I had already been volunteering as a mentor and judge for Startup Weekend and AngelHack, led workshops at TED, and mentored companies at Startup Next. But, I was still searching for a forum where I could contribute in a long-form way, yet still be fully comfortable with how the material is structured.
The reason I was drawn specifically to Startup Institute was their trust in my judgment to tailor the class and allow me to develop my own material. I don’t believe in teaching to a specific, restrictive formula—the industry is young, and I prefer arming students with the knowledge of how others do things now, but encourage them to chart their own course, think for themselves, and optimize the process in their own way.
Startup Institute has a really interesting volunteer, adjunct teaching model. Did you think about doing paid UX teaching?
I’ve been a fan of the adjunct teaching model since college. At Parsons, the majority of the faculty are adjunct professors (like at Startup Institute). This allows the school to attract world-class instructors for two main reasons. One, this allows flexibility for active professionals to balance work and teaching. I strongly believe students benefit from a curriculum that’s designed by a team who has their finger on the pulse of what’s practical in the industry. The professors don’t make any pretensions about the industry, and I found their incorporation of real world experience reassuring that I’d graduate with not just academically-sound skills. Two, top talent is hard to find and recruit, and instructors not only get to train the next generation entering the profession, but also get first dibs on this candidate pool with the rapport they’ve already built.
Did Startup Institute’s model of adjunct teachers resonate with you?
My college Parsons was always proud that the majority of faculty are people who are outstanding and active in their field. Students received exposure to not only the relevant hard skills expected of them in a professional setting, but also got a better understanding of the current industry landscape.
Startup Institute is very much the same. All of their teachers are professionals who I deeply respect, who tailor their classes to what they experience today, and where they see the industry moving. This helps prepare student expectations for working in the industry, and not purely focus on a checklist of academic skills.
Startup Institute’s team and instructors are also some of the most connected in the NYC tech community. Whether a student or instructor, each team member becomes your friend and develops a deep understanding of what your goals are, what your strengths are, and what skills you’re seeking to develop. With this awareness, they’re able to exercise careful judgment to slot you in where you can be the most valuable—the right class, for the right person, at the right time in the program.
How do you get support from the other instructors at Startup Institute?
NYC tech is a close-knit community, and I’m proud to call several of the other instructors my friends. Sometimes we'll audit each other's classes, share tips on how we conduct our classes. I’ll often ping a few friends before I teach a class to learn more about the cohort or hear any lessons learned from their sessions. We’re all constantly working on our own personal development and I appreciate everyone's openness to help each other succeed.
How often do you teach at Startup Institute? How long are your classes?
My class is a one-off, two to three-hour class as part of the intensive Web Design program, but the timing often is not a hard stop. Students have different schedules depending on the track they are on, so sometimes we’ll continue beyond the scheduled time to cover all the questions. Especially when students have individual questions that aren’t relevant to the rest of the group, I’m more than happy to stay after class to address them. After class, students are encouraged to follow up by email, or even meet up for coffee or other events I’m hosting.
What’s the teaching style like at Startup Institute?
I never felt lecturing in person was helpful—that could easily be recorded and watched at home in an online program. Instead, I structure my class more similar to workshops I’ve run previously at TED and tech accelerators. The emphasis is placed on applying what we learned in class together to unearth questions that come up in practice. My goal is to help students walk away with more confidence they can run with their new skills after practicing it once or twice together.
What topics are most important to cover in your Startup Institute class?
In the beginning, Startup Institute approached me to teach more of a skills-based class, like HTML or CSS, but we realized I would be a more valuable resource teaching process. Through student feedback, my session has been moved up early in the curriculum timeline, and has now evolved to focus more on taking the group through how to tackle a project from ideation to launch.
I try to lay a foundation for students, beyond how to use the software and how to do X, Y, and Z. You need hard skills to get in the door. Period. But that alone isn’t competitive. Startup Institute understands this better than anyone. My goal isn’t to cram you full of facts and figures and teach you a trade. Instead, the focus is on helping you develop the skills you need for a successful career—learning how to be resourceful; lay a foundation so you have the tools to develop your skills as technology changes; learn networking skills to open doors and find mentors to accelerate your growth; and build the soft skills that make you indispensable.
How do you prepare for classes and work out the curriculum?
Startup Institute always prepares me well ahead of my session with individual dossiers for each student to help me individualize the class. I’ll revise my general lesson plan based on the students’ experiences and professional backgrounds. In class, I’ll learn more about each of their current challenges and projects, and make the most of our time together by working through the themes most pressing for the group.
Startup Institute truly cares and sets up all the instructors for success, which translates to success for the students. The team promptly answers my questions thoroughly, reviews my slides, and gives me helpful feedback after every class to improve the session for next time.
Bootcamp curricula are often very iterative and adapt to the needs of students- can you tell us about a time you experienced this? What did you notice needed tweaking?
The curriculum is iterative like a startup – you’ll teach your class, then get feedback from the students. This helps shape my next class. For example, when I first started, my class was scheduled towards the end of the Web Design program schedule. As we evolved the class to become more process-oriented, I’ve been moved up the schedule allow me to give the cohort a broad overview and set their foundation for the rest of the program.
As for the class itself, I have the same approach as I take on product strategy inside a company. I tweak (and sometimes completely overhaul) my presentation from session to session. My first time teaching, I realized I focused too much on theory. Now, for every method I teach, I give a practical case study of how I’ve used it in practice on a real client product, then allow the students to run an exercise to understand how it fits with their own project.
Can you tell us about your most successful student from Startup Institute? Do you follow their progress and hear about the sort of jobs they are getting when they graduate?
The people who are most successful at Startup Institute are the ones who take the reins and make it their own. They come prepared for my lesson, aren’t shy, bring great questions, then follow up with me. I always say in class, email me if you have any questions. Very few people do, but those who do, I always follow up, answer questions, or meet them for coffee. It’s up to the students to ask for help and make use of the resources.
I’m incredibly proud that one student I taught, Melanie Smith, is starting her own company to help automate investing for kids. Melanie previously taught math in NYC public high schools and graduated from Startup Institute’s Web Design track. She’s an inspiration as someone who persistently followed up for feedback, jumped on opportunities I forwarded along, and worked hard to deliberately carve her path. I was more than happy to help introduce someone with this much grit to accelerator programs and other friends who could help further her progress.
Tell us about the partner projects that students work on!
This is one thing I really love about Startup Institute. You can’t truly learn to become a great developer just by learning the rote skills of coding. You also can’t become a great designer just by learning the programs and understanding the theory. You need to put it in practice.
When I was in school, one way to accomplish this is with “fake” projects. You create an imaginary client with a self-defined (and likely unrealistic) project brief, then create a design solution to this problem you’ve created. Though this is good practice to hone your skills, it misses the reality of how vastly more complicated a real professional challenge is. Specifically, it’s too easy for your self-defined project to be a single aesthetically-pleasing deliverable.
A real project comes with limitations—small team, impending launch date, budget constraints, churning members, customers not behaving as they originally hypothesized. The design now needs to weigh multiple thought processes, think through interactions, and work to try to understand your customers. It’s nearly impossible to simulate the interpersonal skills needed to present to your client, speaking to the customers to correctly define the problem, understand business implications, and iterate through tradeoffs and solutions.
The partner project gives students a real project to immediately apply their learnings. At the start of the program, students are paired with a local tech startup, and are assigned a specific project. In class, after reviewing a concept, we'll run through this process with a student's partner project so they have an understanding of a practical application.
What resources or meetups do you recommend for aspiring UX Designers in New York?
A few books and articles I’ve read and re-read:
What do you like best about being an instructor at Startup Institute?
I’ve always felt calling myself an instructor was ironic because I learn just as much from my students as I hope they take away from my classes. Startup Institute’s students are world-class, driven professionals from all walks of life: corporate America, teaching, marketing, sales, graphic design, and more. I leave feeling inspired hearing their journeys here and what they hope to accomplish after this program. Especially as a consultant who works across industries, our relationship becomes less like a teacher/student dynamic, and more of a knowledge share community. We’ve continued to keep in touch to continue helping each other and opening doors in our own ways.