Designing the Dream

Photo of Owen Chen

The story begins exactly one year ago, I had just graduated from my four year graphic design program and had been jobless for months. As typical as Asian parents can be, my parents were worried and asked everyday if I had applied anywhere for work.

At the time, I had no notion of what I wanted to do. But I knew I didn’t want to do print design, as it is slowly fading away. Advertising did not interest me either, as I don’t see it producing any true value.

That’s when I discovered the Digital Design program at VFS. At the time, I thought the combination of traditional design and motion graphics could produce very interesting results and unique design solutions.

I applied to the program for the September 2011 intake, but it was full. I was told I would be shortlisted to join the January intake in 2012. Then, after a series of coincidences, I actually ended up joining the September intake after all, and became part of the amazing 22nd class. It was there that I met Miles Nurse, who was senior UX instructor at the time. He brought me to the “dark side” of user experience and interactive design, despite my original hopes of being a motion designer.

Time really flies by when you’re at VFS (exactly like how all of your instructors will tell you throughout the year). A year later, I was standing behind the podium presenting my graduate project in front of a room filled with industry professionals at Appetizers.

Comparing my situation to a year ago, now I knew exactly what I wanted to be: A user experience, interactive designer; I knew exactly what I wanted to do: Design and ship meaningful products and services to thousands, even millions, of users; And most important of all, I knew exactly how to get there.

Filter Digital

One of the industry professionals attending Appetizers, was Mary Blalock from Filter Digital. Filter is an agency that hires talent for multiple large tech companies in the US (e.g., Amazon and Microsoft) on contract. It was the perfect opportunity for me to work at a company that builds its own products and services, while relocating to a place that isn’t raining 10 months of the year… ;-)

After getting in touch with Mary at Appetizers, I immediately prepared myself for the job hunting process with Filter, which included registering on the website, sending in my resume, and of course, my online portfolio. I was paired up with the awesome talent manager Nic Hawley at Filter, and right away he started shooting me potential job openings related to my field.

A week later, I got an email from Nic with an amazing opportunity with Microsoft’s Bing Social team, located in Sunnyvale, California. It has always been my dream to live and work along the sunny California coast, and even a bigger career goal for myself was to work at a tech giant like Microsoft. Without any hesitation or a second thought, I applied for the position.

The Interview

A few days later that week, I got a call from Nic, and was told that Microsoft wanted to arrange an interview. In the email, the manager from Microsoft sent me a few screens of the social sidebar feature that is currently on Bing, and wanted to chat about potential improvements and ideas I would have about it during the interview.

Instead of just brainstorming ideas and trying to describe them over the phone, I remembered that Miles had always told us that the standout presentations at Microsoft were the ones that were best visually presented. I stopped being lazy and got on my computer and spent about 30 minutes creating what I imagined the sidebar should look like, while working within such constraints as, size, style, and existing features.

As it turned out, that was the most life-changing 30 minutes I’ve ever spent on a mockup.

After sending over the mocks, the manager at Microsoft called me a few hours later at our scheduled time. The first thing he said, after introducing himself, surprised me: “Its funny”. That confused and worried me a bit, so I cautiously asked him, “What is?” He replied, “Your design”, but before I could say anything back, he kept going: “it looks very similar to what we’ve been working on internally”. I was shocked and excited at the same time. He then went on talking about their needs and quickly arranged for another member of his team to call me later that afternoon.

At the end of the day, not long after chatting with another Program Manager on the team, I received another call from Nic, who delivered the news. I still remember the first thing he said to me on the phone: “How would you like to work in Sunnyvale California?”

Since then, I have relocated to a studio apartment in Sunnyvale, California (it’s actually sunny 11 months of the year!)  — it’s ten minutes away from work — where I’m currently employed as a UX/Visual Design contractor with the Bing Social team!

I couldn’t be happier, and I am definitely grateful for the crazy year I spent in Digital Design — it prepared me perfectly for this dream moment!

Photo of Owen Chen and Miles Nurse

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