Justin worked in graphic design and art direction for more than 10 years before wanting to digitize his skill set. He’d never heard of UX design, but when he started researching, he realized it ticked all of his boxes. Justin enrolled in DevMountain’s full-time UX Design Bootcamp in Salt Lake City, and designed a fascinating app to help refugees pair with mentors as they resettle. Justin shows us his DevMountain final project on video, tells us how he worked through the trepidation he felt changing careers in his 40s, and how he managed to persuade his current employer to pay for the program and shift his role to UX Design Lead!
What were you up to before DevMountain?
I have a degree in Graphic Design from the University of Utah. Right out of college, I joined a clothing company as their Art Director – designing ads, sales material, marketing collateral, editing photo shoots and designing print patterns for clothing. It was a really fun job that allowed me to be very creative.
From there, I moved to the RBL Group, a Leadership and HR consulting firm, where I was the Art Director. I joke that instead of working with fashion models, I now work with leadership and HR competency models. It's been a good job.
What made you want to upskill and learn UX design at bootcamp?
Part of my motivation was that I didn’t want to be a graphic designer for the rest of my life. I love visual design, but I wanted to be able to contribute more to business success and performance. And I felt like UX gave me a way to do that.
Also, of all the projects I was working on, I found that I enjoyed working on digital applications the most. Working on websites and apps was far more exciting than formatting articles and ads. So, I decided to see how I could further my capabilities within website and app design, and looked into other careers. When I first read about UX design, I had no idea what it was. I looked into it and was intrigued by the descriptions of what UX Designers did. That led me to explore UX as a career.
What made you choose DevMountain over other learning options?
The first bootcamp I heard of was one offered by General Assembly in Seattle. That was very intriguing to me – I had friends in Seattle – so I initially made plans to stay with them while I attended the full-time UX bootcamp in Seattle.
But when I discovered DevMountain and realized it was right here in Salt Lake City, that was a no-brainer. I wanted to make sure it was a good program, so I met with Brandon, the Head of UX at DevMountain. I sat in on a class and asked him all kinds of questions about the outcomes and the curriculum. I also discussed my concerns about my age, and how having an established career, family, mortgage, and all these things would factor into my success in the program. But ultimately, it came down to the fact that DevMountain is right here in Utah. I could live at home and still be available to my job, if they needed me.
Was The RBL Group supportive of your decision to take a bootcamp? Did you take leave from work?
They were very supportive, but it took a bit of convincing. I started to explore the idea of doing this with my manager about three years ago. My proposal was unprecedented – it meant I would be gone for three months and the company would have to find a way to cover my role. It was met with a bit of resistance, but they do aim to have individual development plans for employees. So it took a while to make it happen, but then they ended up paying the tuition for DevMountain, and my salary while I was gone!
I signed an agreement that I would stay with the company for at least a year after graduating which I thought that was more than fair since they were giving me that education and that opportunity. I got so lucky, but a lot of it has to do with the fact they really value what I bring to the company and I've been here a long time. I don't imagine this is a likely scenario for a lot of people who are employed full-time.
What was the DevMountain application and interview process like for you?
It was very simple. There was a phone interview and a design challenge. In the phone interview they asked about my background, why I wanted to get into UX, what I was hoping to get out of the program, where I wanted to go with it – to make sure I was a good fit.
For the design challenge, we had to design a music listening app and design six screens, with arrows pointing to what would do what, then test it with a few users, get feedback, and write the changes we would make to the app if we had more time to do so. I had no idea how competitive the application process was. I had gone through a similar process to get into design school at the University of Utah, which was ultra-competitive – hundreds of students applied for 30 slots. I had that in the back of my mind, so I took the design challenge very seriously and probably spent way too much time on it.
How many people were in your cohort? Did you feel that the class was diverse in terms of gender, race, or life and career backgrounds?
There were 16 people – 4 women and 12 men in the class. I really enjoyed how there were several students from out of state so it wasn't just a bunch of local people. It was not very diverse in terms of race, but it was diverse in terms of career and life experience. I was surprised that I was the only one with a background in visual design. There were a few students who had dabbled in graphic design, but for the most part, they were students or younger people who didn't have an established career yet. I was easily the oldest person in the class.
Can you walk me through the learning experience? What was a typical day and did the teaching style match your learning style?
A typical day at DevMountain started with a creative exercise. Sometimes it was directly related to UX activities and sometimes it was completely unrelated but got us thinking in creative ways. After that, we would have a guest lecture or a lecture from one of the DevMountain instructors. That might be followed by time to work on our projects in groups or individually.
The first third of the course was heavy on lectures and learning principles, while the remainder of the course was heavy on project work. And mentors were always there and available for feedback. I really enjoyed the design of the course.
What types of design tools did you learn about at DevMountain? Were there any tools that you didn't know about before?
Certainly. Sketch was one that I’d never played with. Adobe XD was one that I was very familiar with. I started working in XD three years ago when it first came out. I used to design our website at RBL using Adobe InDesign, which was not meant for designing websites. Today, I've completely transitioned to designing in XD. That definitely has a lot to do with what I learned at DevMountain. A big part of that was the integration of XD with the developer tool called Zeplin. In the past I would design something in InDesign, then export to PDF, and manually input specs for color, font, and spacing. The whole process was really clunky. The integration with XD and Zeplin is super slick and developer friendly.
We learned a tool for prototyping that required a little bit of coding. It was a little more technical than what I was comfortable with, so I didn't really latch on to that. Balsamiq was another one that we used on one of our projects, which I didn't really care for. Sketch, XD, and Zeplin were the tools that I really learned and gravitated towards while I was at the program.
How were you involved with The RBL Group while you were studying? How did you balance your job with your coding bootcamp commitments?
For the most part, I was able to fully disconnect – that's how I set it up. I assembled a team of people to cover for me. There were a few projects that I needed to step in on, but for the most part, I was able to disconnect.
Tell me about your final project you worked on at DevMountain!
My group and I built a website to address a social challenge that we're facing right now: resettling refugees in the United States. The instructor gave us 12 or 16 social challenge ideas, and as a group we decided what to work on. We chose this idea because I had some experience helping refugees. So our project, Remote Refugee Coaching, is dedicated to helping refugees resettle in the United States.
The website is dedicated to attracting mentors who would help refugees settle in our communities. Mentors can use the site to fill out an application form and agree to a background check. Once a mentor is approved, they can fill in their preferences about who and how many people they want to mentor, when they are available, and how they want to communicate. Once a mentor has completed mentor training, they can start interacting with refugees via chat, instant message, video call or email. Users can also document their experiences on the site in an online journal.
How did you decide which technologies to use for research, prototyping, and testing?
We spent the majority of our time designing in Adobe XD. But we started with sketching. After interviews and the research phase, we started sketching ideas to brainstorm what the product was going to be. Once we felt like we were going in the right direction, we used a tool called Balsamiq, a bare-bones prototyping tool. But we quickly moved on from there and jumped into XD when we wanted to start doing mid-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes.
Can you tell me about your UX research and who you talked with during that research?
Part of the UX process is writing out your assumptions. At DevMountain, we were coached and taught and given the tools to do that kind of activity. One of our assumptions was that this would be a solution specifically for refugees. We made assumptions that language, finding a job, and housing were the main issues as to why refugees struggle to settle into the United States.
So we went into our interviews with those assumptions. We set up interviews with refugees as well as experts from Catholic Community Services which is an authorized refugee resettling organization here in Salt Lake City. We asked, “What are the biggest challenges? How hard is it for refugees to find housing and learn to speak English?” We were pretty spot on with our assumptions. But through research and interviews, we discovered that one of the greatest needs is for mentors – people willing to devote time to helping refugees integrate into our culture.
How did you transition back into your job at the RBL Group? Are you now a UX Designer?
Given that we're a pretty small company, we weren’t even hiring for the position of UX Designer and we didn't have a UX team. But I wanted to start functioning as a UX Designer. So there was no resistance to me taking on a new role of UX Design Lead. It was kind of a self-appointed lead, but everybody was totally fine with it.
How are you utilizing the new technologies that you learned at DevMountain in this role now? How has your day-to-day role changed?
My day-to-day role has definitely changed. I'm definitely using tools that I learned at DevMountain. I now spend 90% of my time in XD, whereas before I was just dabbling in it. Before DevMountain, I would occasionally design for the website; today, that’s mostly what I do. Before DevMountain I was formatting papers and printed material. Now it's almost strictly digital applications that I'm working on, specifically the website. We're in the middle of a major overhaul of our current site. We just released the beta site internally to employees.
What's been the biggest challenge or roadblock in this journey to switching to UX design via a bootcamp like DevMountain?
My biggest roadblock was just being established in my career and having a family, obligations, debt, and just being really busy in life. Did I really want to make this career switch in my 40s? I had a fear that if I actually made the transition, there might be a cut in pay, and I might have to take a step back before I could take a step forward. That’s still a possibility. We’ll see what happens!
What’s your advice for other people who are thinking about upskilling or switching careers through a bootcamp?
My advice is to absolutely do it. Especially if you're young and considering a career in tech – UX design, programming, or QA – do a bootcamp for sure. It's so much less of a commitment to do a bootcamp to discover whether or not you want to have a career in tech, than going through a four-year program at a university. Education is totally evolving, and universities are scrambling to figure out how to compete with places like DevMountain. At bootcamps you're getting hands-on technical skills in a short amount of time that are very applicable to what you're going to be doing in the real world. So I'm all for it.
My route to DevMountain was very unconventional. I wouldn’t say, "Do what I did,” because there are not a lot of companies willing to let you leave for three months. If you want to keep your job while studying, you’re more likely to do an after-hours course. I can't speak to the experience of a part-time student, but from what I understand, full-time is the way to go, because you are able to unplug from everything else, commit to what you're learning, work on the projects, and be a part of a team.
My other piece of advice is to put other commitments and distractions aside. Tech bootcamps are not cheap. Break up with your girlfriend (or boyfriend) for three months, quit your part-time job, really focus on the program, and give it your all. If you do, you will likely land a sweet job or at least an internship that will lead to a sweet job.