3 months ago, I relocated to San Francisco from Philadelphia. Finding a job in the San Francisco Bay Area proved to be harder than I originally anticipated. After all, San Francisco is known as one of, if not the, largest tech centers of the world, right? Surely, there is an over abundance of UX and Design jobs and you can essentially have your pick, right? Well, not exactly. For sure there are tons of opportunities here, and the variety of companies to choose from is unmatched anywhere else in the country (New York is close behind). However, finding a job that’s the right mutual fit can still be tricky. I learned a lot along the way and want to share some advice based on my experience.
This advice is not necessarily exclusive to San Francisco. Much of this advice could apply to any job search. However, there are some elements of job searching in the Bay Area that are particularly important to pay attention to.
Define what you’re looking for
Decide what type of company you want to join.
Are you interested in a big corporation? Agency? Early stage startup? Later stage startup? The Bay Area has all of the above, and it can be tricky to decide which type of company suits you best. There are pros and cons of choosing to join different types of organizations. Consider the trade offs in type of work, variety, pace, salary, team dynamics, and work-life balance. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to people in several types of companies to better understand what it’s like to work there.
Determine what industry or type of product interests and excites you.
You will want to find a company whose mission aligns with your interests and values. If you decide to join an in-house product team, much of your happiness at work will be dependent on how excited you are about what the company is building. Keep an open mind about areas you might not have thought would interest you. You may stumble upon a great opportunity in a domain you never thought to explore.
Decide where you want to live and how long you’re willing to commute.
If you’re relocating from outside of the Bay Area, think very carefully about where you want to live, as it can significantly impact your job choice. Traffic is notoriously awful in this area, making commuting within the City, to the East Bay, or to the South Bay/Peninsula tricky. Public transportation is decent, but pay careful attention to the routes and time it takes to utilize public transit. I decided to live in San Francisco and commute to Palo Alto, which meant purposefully living near Caltrain to make the commute bearable.
Learn about salary and equity, and do your homework before negotiating.
Know your base salary number accounting for cost of living in the Bay Area (which, if you haven’t heard, is ridiculous). Many companies will ask you for your salary expectations on initial phone screens. If you must answer this question, it’s generally best to be honest and focus on what you expect to earn, not just what you earn today. If you’re joining an organization where equity is part of your total compensation (e.g. almost all startups), learn about what that means and decide how much you’re willing to compromise on salary in exchange for equity. Be aware that some places, even well-known companies, significantly underpay in the Bay Area. Don’t settle for a position that won’t pay you fairly.
Find inside connections and network, network, network.
Getting a referral from an existing employee is almost always more powerful than submitting your resume blindly to job board postings. Use Twitter and LinkedIn to your advantage. Scour your network and find people who work at the companies that interest you. If you don’t know anyone who works at those companies, reach out to others you know in the field, even if they don’t live in the Bay Area. More likely than not, you will find someone who knows someone at the places you’re interested in if you dig enough. In my search, I found my UX community to be incredibly useful and almost every opportunity I pursued came from a referral.
Many of the best opportunities aren’t posted online.
This is where having a strong network is critical. Many companies, particularly in the startup world, are constantly looking for Design talent, but may not have a specific opening in mind or otherwise may not post their positions online. Consider finding the companies you’re most interested in first, even if they don’t appear to be hiring, and then work to talk to someone there about possible opportunities.
If you do apply for a position without a referral, try to stand out.
Many of the more well-known companies in the Bay Area will receive hundreds if not thousands of applications for Design positions. In order to get a chance to move forward in the process, find ways in which you can stand out from the crowd. Some people take this to the extreme by creating custom web pages or sending the company bribes. My general philosophy is if you need to go to the extreme to get noticed, you’re probably not the right fit for the company. Instead, focus on writing a really good custom cover letter that succinctly explains the value you will bring to the company and why you’re passionate about the opportunity. Creating a video cover letter is a relatively easy way to stand out without going too far. You could also do a mini UX review of one of the company’s products.
Try to attend local UX or Design events.
Local events or meetups are a great way of meeting other practitioners in the area and finding people who are hiring. BayCHI, IxDA-SF, and many meetups on meetup.com are great places to start.
Show off your skills
Your portfolio is your most important asset.
It’s impossible to get a UX or Design job in the Bay Area without a portfolio. While you need to have a resume, most hiring managers will simply skim it to see where you have worked in the past. Your portfolio, on the other hand, is where you can really stand out and show your skills. It’s often the place where you will be making your first impression. Within your portfolio, it’s important to show and explain the process and thinking behind your work, not just the end deliverables. Talk about sketching, brainstorming, requirements gathering, research, etc. That will help companies better understand the value you could bring to their team.
Being a “unicorn” certainly helps, and most companies want someone with a breadth of skills.
Many companies in the Bay Area are searching for the elusive “unicorn” — someone who is a UX Designer, Visual Designer, and Front-End Developer all in one. From what I saw when I was searching for jobs, if you can’t do all three things, at least pick two. However, while many companies will want someone who can bring to their team as many skills as possible, good hiring managers know that it’s unlikely that anyone can do all of those things equally well. Don’t let unicorn postings scare you away from opportunities. Instead, focus on showing the company what you will bring to the team and how you collaborate with people with other skill sets to achieve results.
Prepare for the interview
Be prepared for a potentially long and intense interview process.
I found that Bay Area interviews tended to be a bit more intense in terms of time commitment than interviews I’ve had in the past in other places. This may be a result of the high bar and expectations that companies have for design talent in the area. Expect to go through several rounds of interviews (the most I ran into was 5). This can be particularly difficult if you’re interviewing remotely, so plan for needing the time to go through long phone or video interviews with each company.
Understand the company’s culture before you interview.
California is a very casual state. Startups in particular are known for having a very casual environment. Research the companies you’re interviewing with and try to learn about their company culture. Since culture fit is a big part of any interview process, be cognizant of things like what you wear to the interview. For many places, wearing a suit to the interview will make you stand out in a negative way. When in doubt, ask the company what is appropriate.
Put effort into design challenges or “homework.”
Many companies will ask candidates to work on a design assignment as a way of seeing how they approach a problem and present their work. Many will introduce this as a short 2-4 hour assignment. However, companies want you to show your interest in the position by going above and beyond and being creative in your solution to the assignment. That said, be fair to yourself as the interviewee. Your time is limited, and going overboard may backfire. Use these assignments as a chance to show off your process and core skillset to the company. You don’t have to come up with a perfect solution to these challenges, but coming up with something unique or creative can help you stand out.
Remember that you’re interviewing them, too.
Enter the job searching process with a clear sense of what you want out of a company. As you go through the interview process, listen carefully for signs that the company might not be the right place for you. Ask a lot of questions about the product, leadership, vision, culture, and day-to-day operations of the company. You will want to get a really good sense of what it’s like to work somewhere before you accept an offer.
Find out More
If you’re thinking of getting a new job in the Bay Area, feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I’m happy to make introductions to people I know in the area as well.
I also recommend reading through Patrick Neeman’s article Six Tips Before Moving To San Francisco as a UX Professional. He shares some great tips from his perspective.
RelateIQ is Hiring!
An article like this wouldn’t be complete without saying that we’re hiring designers of all types at RelateIQ! If you’d like more information, I’d love to speak with you. We have a great team and are working on a really challenging and interesting product for the enterprise.