“I’m Not a Cat”: Zooming in on Three Apprentices During a Global Pandemic
Meira Shuman, Former User Experience Designer,
Danielle Sampson, Former Digital Strategy Apprentice, and
Shannon Maylath, Former Project Manager Apprentice
Three apprentices reflect on completing a ten-week apprenticeship in the midst of a global pandemic
Winter 2021 Apprentices:
Shannon (left) is a Project Manager Apprentice. A former marketing manager with an operations background, Shannon dabbled in web projects in her prior roles before deciding to pursue digital project management as a career.
Danielle (center) is a Digital Strategy Apprentice. Formerly an educator, Danielle worked across nonprofits and startups before deciding to deepen her technical domain expertise at Viget.
Meira (right) is a User Experience (UX) Design Apprentice. A former counselor and event planner, Meira pivoted to UX Design at the beginning of the pandemic with the help of a UX bootcamp.
First of all, why did you apply for the apprenticeship?
As it was for so many others, the global pandemic was a real awakening. Without the usual flurry of life distractions, there was no avoiding the realization that my career was heading down a path I just wasn't excited about. A friend had planted the seed years ago that I should consider digital project management, and this idea that had been germinating really took hold. Reflecting on the work and projects that I had loved over the course of my professional experiences, the theme that kept appearing was digital project facilitation. When I started looking for ways to break into the field, my marketing and operations background felt like a good start, but I also knew that I had some knowledge gaps and a need to better understand agency life. The apprenticeship program felt like the perfect opportunity to orient myself in this industry, learn from experts, and chart a path forward.
I was looking for a flexible, fully remote experience that would deepen my domain knowledge and the Viget apprenticeship was an ideal opportunity. I’ve always been interested in technology and have worked in tech-enabled spaces but was sometimes frustrated by the limits of my own expertise. I thought that this apprenticeship would be a great way to continue my self-education in how to leverage tech to make work more efficient and easier, while also giving me a peek into what agency life is like.
As Shannon mentioned, the global pandemic was a catalyst in making some major life changes. I had been working in event planning in 2019 and by early 2020 had enrolled in a UX bootcamp with Designlab. Once I graduated, I discovered that most companies only wanted to hire someone with 2-3 years of experience, even for entry-level positions. This felt like a Catch-22, because how are you supposed to get that experience if no one will hire you?! The apprenticeship at Viget felt like the perfect opportunity to gain more experience and be able to flex all the design skills I had been developing, while also receiving the support of a mentor and other professionals within the field. I’d had my eye on Viget after attending a local UX meetup and intensely stalking their website (so many incredible articles!), so I knew this was a company I wanted to grow with.
How did the apprenticeship differ from your expectations and experiences in other work environments?
Viget is a well-oiled machine. While they are always innovating and questioning how to improve, there are excellent structures and processes in place to support the work that they do and the people that do it. I wondered in starting the program whether 10 weeks would be enough time to truly become immersed and garner significant takeaways, and I worried how feasible it would be to onboard and connect with others as a remote apprentice. Both of these concerns were resolved almost immediately. I arrived to a calendar already brimming with appointments and events, and it was shockingly easy to connect with other Vigets. And with the help of my fabulous mentor, I quickly had an action plan in place for my apprenticeship goals.
The apprenticeship was a full immersion in the operation and execution of digital products, which is exactly what I was seeking. I’m walking out more informed than when I entered. I’ve worked in a range of organizations and Viget is definitely on the higher functioning end of that spectrum. It’s clear the team has reflected and learned from their twenty-plus years of industry experience. Viget’s transparency about all areas of business, including their decision-making processes, was refreshing to me. I think the agency’s intentionality about how they select their partners and their business health was really appealing to me.
I came into the apprenticeship with an open mind and very few expectations. I thought we would somewhat separate from the rest of Viget, especially being 100% remote due to the pandemic, but we had access to the entire slack workspace (all 670+ channels!) and were encouraged to join any social group, meeting, or project that sparked our interest. I think a silver lining of the pandemic is that so much communication and socializing was now happening online, so it was easier to connect with people from all the different offices. I was surprised how quickly we went from being complete strangers to feeling like a part of the team, which maybe speaks to the friendly, welcoming atmosphere that Viget actively works to develop through their culture and programming.
What did you find most valuable?
This is such a difficult question to answer! The apprenticeship affords real project experience, 1-on-1 conversations across labs, exposure to an enormous range of design and development work, and invaluable mentorship. Particularly in the role of a PM, it's crucial to have empathy for your team. Developing informed empathy requires an understanding of the type of work that the team does - and what it takes to do it. The most valuable experience was probably this exposure to the work and thought processes across digital project disciplines. I have both a broader and deeper understanding of the capabilities and the challenges of other labs. Gaining this exposure, in combination with the insights from the Viget PMs, I feel far better equipped to provide support and resources to the teams I will lead in the future.
I too find this difficult to answer. Similar to Shannon, I think the ready openness to those curious about exploring ideas and crafts outside of their primary discipline was most valuable. I came in as a Digital Strategy apprentice and have worked in the BD space, so I knew that I wanted to deep dive into hands-on skills like wireframing, designs, and coding that I had no experience with. Not only was I supported, but I was encouraged to do just that. It was also incredibly valuable for me to talk to colleagues about how they approach their craft. Understanding the different considerations of a developer vs. a designer and the ways in which they need to collaborate was insightful. Being part of Pointless Corps was a great way to understand what it feels like to be part of the collaborative environment of a design team.
Maybe this is my counseling background speaking, but I really enjoyed being able to talk to as many people as possible and asking them all the questions on my mind. I filled up my calendar the first few weeks with as many 1-on-1s as I could handle. While I asked people some serious questions about projects they were working on or had them walk me through their workflow, I’m so glad that I thought to ask more personal questions like, “How do you achieve work/life balance at an agency?” and “What advice would you give to yourself when you first started your career?” The answers I got from these types of questions were invaluable in helping me contemplate my own career path.
What do you wish you did differently?
Hindsight is 20/20, so there are plenty of things that I have learned, where, were I to do that thing again, I would adjust! But, as Maya Angelou said, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." There are a couple of instances where I wish I had spoken up sooner. My recommendation to anyone starting this program would be to really challenge yourself to share your opinion and your voice. Viget is full of smart, open-minded people who will welcome your perspective, and your position as an apprentice affords you the freedom to question and experiment. The more vulnerable you are in sharing your ideas, the more you have the opportunity to grow and challenge yourself.
I really don’t. In reflecting on the goals I set for myself, I fulfilled them and more. Sometimes I wish I had started my projects earlier -- I continue to be a recovering procrastinating perfectionist haha. But honestly there’s not much that I didn’t accomplish here. For example, I set a goal to meet with 40 people, and I ended up meeting with 36 - I still feel great about my achievement and am really happy to expand my network and meet so many amazing thoughtful people. I added to my personal portfolio, and I feel good that I was able to add value to Viget through research and presentations, as well as sharing some of my own background and knowledge with the team.
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." -Maya Angelou
That Maya Angelou quote Shannon shared is spot on. I don’t have many regrets about this experience, but I would advise future apprentices to be very intentional in their choice of a personal project. (For background info, all apprentices are tasked with completing a “personal project” during their ten weeks.) I am a UX generalist but found myself deep into an ambitious internal research project. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing research, but I was doing myself a disservice by not using my limited apprentice time to focus on the skills I most needed to grow. Once I “knew better,” I pivoted my focus to better fit my professional goals. I’d advise apprentices to choose tangible, bite-sized personal projects so you’ll have something to add to your portfolio after these ten weeks.
What is the day-to-day like as an apprentice?
Every week is different! The apprenticeship has a routine that you can ground yourself in, with weekly microclasses on different industry topics, introductory and shadowing sessions, and a series of 1-on-1's with your mentors and folks from Viget's delightful people team. But outside of this framework you have a ton of flexibility to chart your own course. Earlier in the program, I used my flexible time largely to connect with other Vigets, study process documents and tools, shadow others, and read up! As the weeks went by, more of that time went toward work on real projects for the agency.
While there were some cemented apprenticeship-focused meetings as Shannon mentioned, I had manageable flexibility in my day. I’m the kind of person who schedules themselves pretty tightly, so I didn’t have much down time. I eventually found that I had to schedule focus time on my calendar to synthesize ideas and readings I had come across throughout the week. I also found it very valuable to block out time for longer readings, which included muting the slack channel. There is so much activity that it can be a big distraction - there is always something to get involved in if you are so inclined, so I had to be intentional about making space for deep work.
Being a fully-remote apprentice (because of Covid-19) came with its own adjustment to constant screen time. After a few weeks of feeling like a zombie from back-to-back zoom meetings, I learned some tactics for taking control of my days. For example, turning off my camera during meetings so I could eat lunch or blocking off focused time on my calendar. A perfect day would have a healthy balance of meetings and deep focused work where I could put on some peaceful jams and dig into some wireframing.
What articles/resources have been really helpful for you?
The Viget blog has been a tremendous source of learning, as well as the company's intranet Knowledge Base. In addition, I've been pointed to some excellent outside resources. The Digital Project Manager newsletter and podcast have been favorites, and I’m fascinated by The Great Divide.
The Viget blog was a deciding factor in my decision to pursue the apprenticeship opportunity. Looking at the articles that colleagues have authored before talking to them in 1:1s was really helpful. Viget has exponentially grown my to-be-read list. It was already long and now it’s even longer!!! I’m waiting for my copy of Communicating Design by Dan Brown to ship, and it will join my giant stack of books at my house.
I third everything that’s been said about the Viget blog! I probably read over fifty Viget articles before even applying for the apprenticeship. In the process, I found some great books to read, felt validated in switching my career in my 30s, and identified which imposter syndrome I struggled with. During the apprenticeship I found our weekly microclasses to be incredibly helpful as a great way to expose us to topics and subjects I wouldn’t otherwise have thought about (e.g. How the Web Works, where I learned how much I didn’t know about the internet). I really appreciated these microclass facilitators taking time to share their expertise with us and answer all of our questions.
Any final nuggets of advice?
Be as present as you possibly can in this experience, because the work that you put into your apprenticeship will be returned to you. Be generous and supportive to the people supporting you. Make sure that you set a pace that is optimal for achieving your specific goals, and don’t forget to give yourself time to think and reflect, because some of your most valuable apprenticeship insights will come from that self-reflection.
Read the blog. Viget takes pride in communicating ideas clearly, so make sure that’s evident in any communication you have with the agency. This experience is what you make of it. Even if you do just the bare minimum of apprenticeship classes, you’ll still get immense value from the experience, but if you take the initiative to be curious and observe or participate in other areas the opportunities are unlimited. The experience moves very quickly so make sure you have set aside time to check in on your progress and ensure you’re on track with your personal goals.
Take the apprenticeship seriously. Those ten weeks will blur past so quickly and you want to get the most out of it. Use this time to polish your portfolio, hone your skills, and take advantage of networking. If you are hoping to join the Viget team after your apprenticeship, make sure to show that you can hustle. They’ll tell you this isn’t a ten-week job interview… but it is. And that’s not a bad thing. Use this as an opportunity to put your best foot forward and treat it like a real job. Even if you don’t want to work at Viget, this is a great opportunity to challenge yourself to be your best professional self so you’ll be prepared for whatever is next on your career journey.
Interested in becoming an apprentice? Learn more about applying for an apprenticeship at Viget.