Kickstarting a Career in Web

Kickstarting A Career in Web

Recently, I was asked to speak at a Student Web Conference about starting a web career. More specifically, I was asked to talk about internships, why I thought they were important, and how to find them. The talk focused on design internships mostly since that's my area of expertise. All in all, it was great fun hearing all the talks by the teachers, students, and other working professionals involved. Special thanks to webucator Zac Gordon and the awesome students at Springbrook High School for their hard work in making it happen. Here are some of my notes:

Beginning Your Quest

When I think about internships, I think about my own journey as a departing student and a budding designer. I worked two internships before someone hired me full-time. The first was a summer internship at a small marketing agency prior to my senior year in design school. I was the sole designer and I was paid with hardware and software instead of cash. I learned a ton. The second was an on-campus opportunity where I spent more time with an Xacto blade and rubber cement than on a computer. For that one I was paid with college credits. I learned more there than I did in my classes. 

When I think about that journey, the idea of having a quest comes to mind. A quest has goals. It is at it's core a mission. When I think of a quest, I can't help but think of the "Bridge of Death" scene from Monty Python's Holy Grail:

When I look back at that clip and try to make a correlation I see the interview process. There are questions that will be asked with the expectations that you'll have good answers. Sometimes your answers will be perfect and you'll pass right through. Sometimes your answers will be wrong and the next in line will have a chance. And sometimes you'll have better questions than the person interviewing you. When I'm put in the position of the bridge troll I'm always looking for someone who has better questions than I do. I want to hire people who make me think – people who myself and others can learn from or be inspired by. Quest aside for a moment, let's talk about the journey.

Why Should I Intern?

An internship, as it's defined is a job taken by a student in order to learn a profession or trade. Note the word "student" in that definition. There is no better time to test the waters with your career intentions than while you are a student. There is still time to make a change or maybe you'll decide that experienced gained in an internship is a stepping stone to something else, like grad school. A similar thing to an internship is an apprenticeship. As it is defined, the main difference is that there isn't a reference to being a "student" meaning it can happen post-graduation or mid-career. At Viget, we accommodate both in that we've had both current students and post-grads join us even though we refer to both opportunities as internships. I can think of no better way to get some early, low-pressure, low-risk experience from working professionals before making the leap into your career. It's not easy to change your mind once you are making salary and have responsibilities to tend to. 

When asked why he decided to intern with Viget, Paul Koch said:

I really wanted to try out what I’d been learning in school. It’s one thing to talk about subjects in theory, but another entirely to see how they operate in practice. 

Paul was a rising senior when he interned at Viget in our Marketing team. A year later, he decided to join us full time.

What Do Interns Do?

What interns do differs from company to company. Some will throw you right into the pool and expect you to swim right away. Others have established curriculums to help nurture your talents and abilities before you are expected to produce. On our design team we try to find a balance by starting out with fictitious projects, moving into internal projects, and find client projects when you're ready for deeper emersion. Our full-time internships are paid so it's a real benefit for us to get you to client work during the internship period to help us help you. One important thing to keep in mind is that you should be open-minded about what you are being asked to do. A company's needs change like the wind and while there are benefits for both parties the opportunity is a luxury not afforded to everybody. 

Vigegram screen shot

Our Fall 2010 intern, Steve, helped create our annual holiday greeting. 

What About Getting Hired?

We offer internships mostly as a way to connect with emerging talent but also as a way of practicing our mentoring and teaching skills. We do from time to time hire our interns as evidenced by Paul's mention above. That said, I love this quote by Ursula Leguin where she says:

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Don't focus on the destination, it's the journey that is most important. Part of the reason we love rising seniors as interns is that it gives us time to see how an intern can apply any learnings in their remaining time at school. For the interns, it gives them time to look around before making any decisions. Paul weighed his options at a few other places before coming back to Viget. 

What Does Viget Look For In An Intern?

Do you like puzzles?

We like people who love solving problems. People who aren't quick to give up. People who aren't satisfied until they have figured things out and can reflect on what they've learned on their journey.

Does DIY fascinate you?

Are you the kind that loves building and creating things? This is fundamentally what we do. We are makers and we make bad ass stuff every day. 

Does source code scare you?

It shouldn't. Looking at source code and figuring out how it works is what I mean by solving puzzles. At Viget, it doesn't matter whether you are a designer, a developer, a project manager, or a marketing analyst. Code is what the web is all about we expect our staff to be comfortable around it. You don't have to be an expert depending upon your role. We have experts aplenty. But you should be inquisitive about and some working knowledge of how it works.

Do you bore your friends with your ability to identify fonts?

Our designers do. There's nothing more satisfying than figuring out that font or font family is being used on the things around us. It's like being able to rattle off the batting average of professional baseball players. An obsession that once you start you can't stop. 

Do you have hobbies outside of the web?

We like people who bring outside interests into the inner workings of the office. It's what makes us unique and fun to be around. We have avid bikers, foodies, hikers, photographers, musicians, and much more. Who wants to talk about nothing but code and pixels. We don't. It's just what we do. 

What kind of person are you?

As you might imagine, we hold good character traits in high regard. Think of your favorite superheroes and their humanistic character traits. Do you geek out on technology and want to use it for good, like Iron Man or Batman? Are you patient and responsible, like Spiderman? Do you have interest in helping others and consistently doing the right thing, like Superman? Can you work in a team, like the X-Men or the TMNT? 

How Do I Find Internships?

Colleges
  • Career counselors
  • Bulletin Boards (both physical and virtual)
  • On- and off-campus opportunities
Online
Identify Companies You Like (Best Bet)
  • Use social media tools to get to know what the company is about.
  • Contact someone and introduce yourself. Simply ask them to review your portfolio or code samples. Maybe offer to buy coffee to get to know them. 
Join Organizations
  • Join local organizations and attend events (Refresh, AIGA, ADC, Meetups, etc.).
  • Identify national conferences of interest (SXSW, An Event Apart, Web Directions, etc.). 
  • For students many organizations and conferences offer discounts.
  • Don't be afraid to network but please be courteous. You don't want to be "that guy" or "that girl".
  • Volunteer your time.
Establish an Online Presence
  • Put your portfolio or code samples online.
  • Write consistently on a blog.
  • Use commenting and social media to network (use discretion).
  • Be mindful of your conduct online. Don't post anything you wouldn't show your mom.
  • Give credit where credit is due. Don't claim to work that isn't yours as your own. 
Apply
  • Like in sports, you have to take shots to make them. Just apply.
  • Don't be afraid to fail. Keep trying but avoid being overly eager.
  • Begin now. Don't wait until you graduate or are between jobs.

Some final thoughts and advice

Look For Whiteboards

Once you get your foot in the door for an interview, look for whiteboards or other surfaces for writing. Better bet, look for whiteboards that are being used. This means that people are collaborating and working together as at team. 

Dress For The Job You Want

Offices tend to have uniforms even if it's not obvious at first. Often times, people in different positions will dress differently and it only gets more formal as you go up the chain. At Viget, on most days the dress is casual. Denim and screen printed tees are a common component of our uniform. You'll want to dress as nicely as your peers if not slightly better. If you're going to be client facing you'll want to anticipate their dress and dress slightly better even if it means being dressy.

Exercise and Eat Right

This sounds like something your mother would tell you. This is a sedentary lifestyle. Even though we like to collaborate, most hours of the day are spent sitting in front of a computer with little movement. The brain gets more exercise than any other body part. Find time to exercise and try your best to avoid the Tastykakes and Ho Hos. 

Work Hard

This is your audition. Companies love people who show that they are willing to put in extra effort on a regular basis. Impress your supervisor by showing up just before her and leaving after she leaves. She'll think you're always working. 

Find Your Strengths

It's highly unlikely that you are great at everything. Find your strengths and play to them. Be an expert in one area and work on others. 

Identify Your Weaknesses

It may take time but once you know areas of weakness that you want to work on go full throttle. Improving your weaknesses will bolster your strengths.

Never, Ever, Ever, Stop Learning

The day you stop learning is the day you stop living up to your full promise. Find a place that supports continuing education. At Viget, we're constantly learning from each other. We like to hire people who we know we will learn something from. 

Go Forth and Be Great

If you're getting ready to begin your career or looking for a change, try an internship or apprenticeship. It's the best thing I could have possibly done to launch my career in design and complete my quest. 

Tom is vice president of design and works in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. He has over two decades of experience as a designer and team coach, and works with clients such as the University of Pennsylvania and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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