7 min read

You are not your job search

I have always tried to be an open book so as to help others. I’ve learned that having too much of an ego gets in the way of everything…
You are not your job search
Many months into the new job hunt, it can be very confusing to know what companies want and if you still have any value.

I have always tried to be an open book so as to help others. I’ve learned that having too much of an ego gets in the way of everything (progress, growth, success, to name a few). So, I try not to whitewash any mistakes or failures that I’ve had to confront. In my experience, honesty is liberating and paves the way to move forward, mature, and grow. However, there is one recent period of my life that I find difficult to process, and I haven’t been as open about it, but I know very clearly what some of you are going through a similar difficulty and so it’s time to open my book a bit more.

The following story is one I haven’t shared openly because it does not have a happy ending. It still stings, but I’m sharing this now because I believe it will help some of those persons I know are out there that need to know they are not their job search (especially those whom I met during the Holiday Office Hours). At the time all of this took place, I would have given anything for someone to share a similar story with me when I needed it the most.

When I arrived at the offices, it was just as I had imagined based on a few photos I’d seen previously. On the way to my first meeting, I bumped into the CEO in the hall way. He was the reason I was there, after having a great conversation a few weeks prior. The CEO said he wanted to talk and asked that I not leave until we had a chance to chat. I took that as a good sign of things to come.

The interviews lasted six hours without a break for lunch; a thorough string of conversations and exercises around the practice of design and sharing my related experiences. It was clear midway through that none of this day was merely a formality — as sometimes the “on sites” are — and that I was still very much a prospect. We had several types of interactions from conversations about the product, a UX design challenge, and my passion(s) for design.

The CEO never showed up. Instead, the Head of Talent ended the day with a brief review of the day and thanked me for coming in while he escorted me to the exit. A lot of the office had already cleared out, and I remember how quiet it was walking to the door. It was two weeks before Christmas, and I hoped to come home with a bit of a miracle because I was interviewing at a company that I admire greatly. Still, I was leaving without an offer and I did my best not to Charlie Brown out of there.

I was in the right place, but the way wrong time, for me.

Thankfully I had dinner plans with a good friend who worked nearby. We met and had drinks while I relayed the events of the day. We both thought the experience at the end was abnormal. I tried not to think too much about it too much when I got a text message from a phone number I did not recognize.

“Are you still here?” followed a few second later with “It’s Ev.”

I affirmed that I was still in the city. He replied with an apology for not being able to see me at the end of the day due to a meeting that ran longer than anticipated. He still wanted to meet, and so we exchanged more messages to figure out logistics as Ev had one more meeting to attend before he could call it a day.

At the appointed time nothing happened. The final text to establish time and place never came. A few hours passed quietly, so I packed for an early flight home the next morning and began reading in bed. At 10:30 pm my phone vibrated with one more question from Ev asking if I was still around. I replied, and we agreed to meet in my hotel’s lobby at 11 pm.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I figured that if an industry mogul is going out of his way to meet with a candidate at 11 pm in their hotel lobby…well, I thought that it was a very good sign of things to come.

We talked for a little more than an hour on the makeup of the current design team and what their needs are, the future of Medium, and Ev’s thoughts about the future of the media industry in general. It was an amazing conversation, and I still feel lucky to have had that experience. Ev closed out the session by saying he wanted me to have one more conversation after everyone got back from vacation in the new year.

As you can imagine, I went home feeling confident and excited about moving back to San Francisco to work in the design group at Medium.

A week after New Years I had that “last conversation” with the person in charge of running the editorial group. We had a pleasant discussion which ended with “I can’t use a guy with your experience, just yet.” He further explained his plans for growing the department, and then I would be a great fit.

We said goodbye, and that was that — I never received a job offer.

At the time I had two other great opportunities lined up at different companies, and those too went ice cold in the new year. I was devastated. As if the loss of my company months before wasn’t enough — not having a single job offer was like being repeatedly hit by a very large and fast moving vehicle, with no one around to help.

A borrowed depiction of how I felt in late 2014, early 2015

I didn’t move much for the rest of January.

My self confidence shattered, it took a lot of energy to get back up and continue searching for “what’s next.” After having several conversations with friends and fellow design leaders I came to understand that while some of my experiences came as a surprise to me, they weren’t that unusual, and it certainly wasn’t personal.

That made my situation a bit easier to process, but not by much. Before leaving Happy Cog, I had held a job since grade school (a two-mile long paper route that I served faithfully every day of the week until I was able to work in retail). Many of my peers told me to use the time to process where I wanted to go next, but I found it hard to be positive, let alone feel that I had any control over my future. My “processing time” started to feel more like a prison sentence.

After six months had gone by without having a single job offer I began to believe that my value to the industry I helped create was absolute zero. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a good time for me, and to be honest, I’m still struggling a bit with that feeling. It took many more conversations, attempts, and failures at finding a job before I landed a unique position at IBM.

Roughly two years have gone by now, and I’ve received more information to help process that time in my career—both, from those whom I interviewed with and from industry acquaintances who have gone through their own challenges in moving on to the next role.

As it turns out, I was well liked at Medium, but I was a different “shape” for the “hole” they were trying to fill. And, given that I hadn’t interviewed in eleven years, I wasn’t at all prepared. Simply put, I didn’t go into that interview (or the others) with a clear vision for what I wanted to do in the company. Which means I wasn’t prepared to sell Greg Storey like I should have been. I delivered a lot of passion for the company — who they are and what they do — it was all there, but I left it up to others to translate that energy into an idea of how I could fit in the company. And you can’t do that anymore, especially if they don’t know you personally.

I was in the right place, but the way wrong time, for me.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned through a handful of stories that other peers — people who helped build the industry and have had very successful careers — are experiencing the same difficulties in their transition. Even with published books, years of public speaking, and leading successful studios or companies, it took each of them roughly a year to find the next role. I have to admit that this news made me feel better (I hope that makes you feel better too).

After comparing transition stories, it would seem that the practice of hiring in our industry has evolved. Companies now have a better idea of how to hire and manage designers. Their data points have changed as have the archetypes of a successful candidates. While cultural fit is still important if your “shape” of experience and skills does not exactly fit the “hole” of the archetype then, no job for you!

After giving all of this more thought, I should have treated my job search like a service design with considerations for all of the possible touch points: email introductions, in-person introductions (sometimes at very loud parties—I’m looking at you private Apple SXSW party at the Concrete Cowboy), applications, the portfolio, resume, cover letters, the recruiter screen call, the two-to-three follow-up phone calls, the one “failure” story, the one “success” story, the on-site visit, the team lunch, the office/studio tour, the goodbyes, and the thank you notes. Applying for a job is no different than a sales effort, and given the increasing competition against digital design’s commoditization, good work and a lot of experience is not enough.

To everyone in digital design working towards “what’s next,” I hope this is helpful. And I hope you can close your own “sale” before too long.