“It was a charmed existence, until it wasn’t”: an anonymous account of working as a designer at a Silicon Valley tech giant
Would you take a job at a despised company if it offered creative, economic and social opportunities? It’s a conundrum many face, as these firms recruit ever more designers, so we asked someone with first-hand experience.
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The recruiter’s email was brief and breezy. They were reaching out to see if I would be “open to talking about design roles”. Their office was on the west coast of America and they weren’t sure if relocation was an option, but they thought they would “touch base” to see if I was interested.
A job at a tech company wasn’t something I had ever considered at that point in my career. I barely knew these jobs existed, let alone that somebody like me could be hired for one of them. I had graduated from a traditional graphic design course a few years prior and had spent the intervening years working independently, taking on a (mostly) steady stream of brand design and editorial illustration gigs. I lived in an affordable city, worked alone from a weird rented office space, and made enough to live comfortably, though not enough to save anything meaningful. I had never used the words “touch base”.
For a while, I had liked the work I was making, but around the time the recruiter’s email arrived I was dissatisfied. I rarely felt challenged or that I was learning anything new, and I worried constantly about how long I could financially sustain life as a freelancer, not to mention how long the style in which I worked would remain in demand. Friends in bigger cities were making exciting work for exciting amounts of money; this email seemed to represent an opportunity for me to do the same, albeit with a company that didn’t elicit much excitement from me at all. With hastily constructed confidence, I emailed back and said I’d definitely be open to talking about design roles.
Several months, some phone interviews, and a couple of design exercises later, I was invited for an on-site interview. Everybody I met was friendly, attractive and frighteningly intelligent, and they did a great job of convincing me I was at least two out of those three as well. I was surprised by how quickly my preconceptions of the company fell away the moment I turned up to find a building full of nice people passionate about design.
I was interviewed for two positions: one in marketing, producing work similar to what I’d been making for the past few years, and another in product design, a field in which I had zero experience other than coding my own website. A week after flying back to the UK, I was offered a position on that second team. While I knew taking the job would pit me against weapons-grade impostor syndrome, it was also a stable, salaried job in a beautiful west coast city in which I’d wanted to live for years, and it promised both the challenge and opportunity to learn I had been looking for. I still had doubts about the company, but what was the harm in testing the waters for a year or so? I was in my mid-20s and therefore still able to make mistakes and recover from them quickly. If things went south, return flights were always available, and I knew I’d regret not taking the offer and would torture myself with how my life might have changed if I didn’t. Almost a year exactly after receiving that first email, I left the country with a single suitcase and an H1B visa.
I’ve never publicly shared any of the work I made in my first year at the company. I bounced between teams, desperately attempting to catch up to the level of technical expertise that surrounded me, creating static UI mockups in Photoshop while my coworkers made functioning prototypes in software they themselves had written. I wasn’t proud of the work I was making, but I loved the atmosphere in which I made it and the culture of critique and collaboration. I was flexing muscles I had developed as a student but which had atrophied somewhat as a lonely freelancer.
One year later another position opened up on an internal team far removed from product. The work was much more aligned with my skills and interests, and after going through the interview process once more, I transferred and remained there for three years. The team I joined was minuscule and had both enormous creative freedom and a seemingly inexhaustible budget. In three years I would learn new skills, travel, make friends, meet personal heroes, and grow both personally and professionally through exposure to a wide variety of creatives with backgrounds and experiences unlike my own. I would frequently and happily work late driven by the joy of the work itself, and because I liked wandering the enormous campus alone at night.
It was a charmed existence, until it wasn’t. It’s appropriate that I don’t mention the company name anywhere in this article, because these days I think twice before telling people where I worked. Prior to this experience, I had never worked at any company, let alone one that generated international news stories that my friends and family would ask me about. Perceptions of the company changed enormously after I moved to the US – as time went on, it became increasingly hard to feel good about my own professional development in light of the mistakes the company was making. I left almost exactly five years after I joined.
It’s impossible to imagine who or where I might be if I hadn’t replied to that recruiter’s first email. The people and experiences it led me to have changed my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined, but I’ll be reconciling those changes with the fact that I contributed to an ethically questionable company for the rest of that life. If you, hypothetical young designer, were to ask me if you should take a similar position, I’d say you should work anywhere that exposes you to as diverse a group of collaborators as possible, as I’ve found this can make you not only a better designer, but a more empathetic person – and while we need some of the former, we need infinite numbers of the latter. I’d also tell you to be more discerning than I was when choosing the company you might want to join, and that learning how to succeed in a corporate environment is its own learning curve. Mostly though, I’d tell you to ask yourself what you really want and answer honestly. I suspect you may already know.