A student friend of mine recently reached out to me asking for advice regarding their portfolio, finding work, retaining your personality on the job, and more. My answers were so long that I wanted to share them more publicly! Please note that this person asked about games and technology, so most of the advice is centered around those industries.
How would you structure a portfolio for your first job?
A major issue I often encounter is that hiring managers want to see case studies, but many job hunters only show the finished product! Stand out by presenting your thought process instead of solely focusing on your output. How you thought about something is as important as the finished result. Employers want to understand how you’ll contribute to the team, and especially savvy managers know to look for ways prospective employees deal with challenges that naturally occur during the process of developing a project.
When is something good enough for a portfolio?
Contrary to popular belief, you can get a job by showcasing class projects. If you can explain how you came up with the idea and how you executed it, you can put it into your portfolio. I’ve hired people who were great critical thinkers but needed mentorship on visual design, but never the reverse.
Even so, I will say there’s definitely a positive employer bias toward portfolio work that looks polished. Finding a great problem solver who is also entry-level and proficient at refining work is a dream come true. The delivery of this kind of quality often requires working at a scale larger than most students can independently achieve. If you can find folks to collaborate with, there’s no shame in working together to make a better result—I’d actually recommend it because it’s a more realistic experience that mirrors the workplace! I unfortunately relied too much on myself when I was younger and realized I was burning myself out. Now, I tend to work with other people and, wow, I can do so much more in less time!
If you need more work for your portfolio because you aren’t confident in what you already have, I’ve also been in this situation. I took on volunteer and freelance work to bulk up my portfolio. Lots of people want low-cost assistance, which provides many a great opportunity for junior folks to shine. Free work is not recommended if you can avoid that route. Regardless of your methodology, real world case studies tend to be more effective than pie-in-the-sky ideas.
Is a proof of concept enough to get a job, or does my have to be fully functional?
That depends on the job you’re hoping for. There are prototyping jobs, but they usually aren’t for junior folks. For example, companies aren’t always looking for junior game designers so you usually have to have another skill you can do, for example engineering. This is because larger companies often have people who are the lead designers, and smaller companies are usually startups that require someone who can be a generalist. Therefore, yes—showing you can actually come up with an idea and build it at some fidelity is better than having nothing.
Finding a position
How did you get the first opportunity that helped you transition into your professional career?
I started doing freelance when I was in college. It was out of necessity, as I needed to for books and supplies. For example, I volunteered to help several nonprofits for a low fee, followed by a lot of work that I found through Craigslist. By the time I graduated, I had a fair amount of work to share in my portfolio that wasn’t just from classwork. Then, I started applying to smaller companies—I figured they’d be more likely to take a chance on me. While i wasn’t confident in myself as a person, I was very confident in my skills as a worker. I think people could tell in interviews. As an added bonus, folks found me personable because, well, I’m extra. Your personality is valuable because it differentiates you a lot, especially when youre junior and folks have to bet on potential.
How do I figure out what I should be paid?
Before I got my first full-time job, I used Glassdoor a ton. Back in 2011, this was one of the only websites that let you search by position and location to get an idea of salary ranges. Now, there are many other websites that do this including LinkedIn and PayScale. Compare values across the sites and ask for something in the high end of the range—companies expect you to ask high and negotiate down a bit.
During my research, I also talked to a lot of other people in my field about what they asked for! Many people are happy to share salary information, as the only entities who benefit from salary secrecy are employers. Do your research and then ask for as much money as you can, even if you don’t feel like you deserve it!
Do many jobs within games and digital media offer medical benefits?
I can’t directly answer this about games jobs, but my friends have had those benefits when working full-time at game development companies. Regarding my job as a digital product designer, which falls under digital media, yes; every company I’ve worked at full-time has offered medical benefits.
How does one manage the instability within the games industry?
I personally mitigate the instability by working in tech full-time, running a Patreon, and doing contract gigs on the side to earn enough to spend on game development. It’s the most stable situation I could ask for. I know others who teach and that helps them earn enough money to work on video games. Generally, I’d advise against putting your eggs into one basket unless you have a backup plan. That sometimes means not working full-time in industries that are known to mistreat their workers.
Identity and mental health
How do you deal with maintaining your identity while working in tech, and how do you find inclusive workplaces?
I had the privilege of choosing to work at a place that celebrates my identity. I made sure to grill prospective employers about their company culture and how it was created. I usually don’t think about my gender, race, sexuality, etc at the office because I work at a very inclusive company. Nonetheless, I do like to involve myself in employee resource groups to contribute to the inclusivity of my workplace environment.
Regarding finding the right company, practice makes perfect. over time, I improve at asking the right questions and catching red flags. For example, here are a few…
- How would you describe your company’s culture?
- Is that culture explicit or implicit?
- How does your company support marginalized folks (not just white women)?
- How do you cultivate culture on the team?
- Are events mainly centered around happy hours and alcohol or do they actually make an effort to help teammates get along?
How do you navigate spaces where you are the minority or marginalized?
I usually find the other marginalized folks and talk to them as often as I can. Support groups got me to where I am today. I wouldn’t have stayed in tech if I hadn’t found great individuals at every job who helped me remember which direction is up. This is why employee resource groups and other support functions are so important to me even now.
How do you turn down the voice in your head that tells you that a work isn’t “good enough”?
When I encounter this feeling during the job search, I abide by the old adage: you don’t know until you try. If you can afford to take a little risk, you should. Time is limited, and there’s no reason not to work toward being the ideal version of yourself—whatever that means to you. Ideal Future Catt has made current-day Catt take some incredible risks, and I’ve mostly been well-rewarded for those efforts.
Sometimes those self-deprecating feelings arise during my work, and in those moments I remind myself that I can’t compare myself to others. Over time, I’ve mastered the art of telling the mean voice to shut up! To build confidence, I started keeping a living document with every contribution I’ve ever made to my team. I also screenshot and save every positive message I receive about my work in my company’s Slack channel. I reference this evidence when I need a reminder that I’m good enough.
How do you manage your mental health? To be more specific, how do you manage stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression?
Therapy. Mat exercise including yoga and pilates. Biking. Rock climbing. Dance class. Eating breakfast. Focusing on the little things. Listening to my body. Prioritizing people over projects. Prioritizing rest over finishing that last bit. Focusing on learning rather than winning. Reminding myself that I’m only human.
How do you keep up with having interests in things that aren’t your career?
I spend time with a lot of people who aren’t like me. They have completely different interests and sometimes different careers, and I like to dabble in their hobbies. I’m inspired by them; I don’t always enjoy what they’re into, but that’s actually how I found out about rock climbing! Reminding myself that I can have fun and not always have to be productive is the key.
I hope you found these answers helpful. Good luck on your job search, and remember that you are worth the work!
In this panel, we will hear from Staff and Principal Designers who’ve managed to stay on the IC track while growing their careers. We’ll get into some of the day-to-day nitty-gritty of what it means to be a Staff Designer or Principal Designer, and how to make this role a reality within your organization.