From Hospitality and Retail to Thriving Tech Professional: What It’s Like To Be a UX Designer

CareerFoundry graduate, Norman Wollaston, is now working as a UX designer in San Francisco—and he’s loving it! But it took a lot of hard work to get him to where he is now. Here’s his motivating career change story.

by Alison Ward on 7 February 2022

Norman Wollaston, CareerFoundry graduate and UX designer

Ever wondered what it’s like to be a CareerFoundry graduate working in the field as a successful UX designer? Norman’s got the answers! We were fortunate enough to host a live webinar with UX graduate, Norman Wollaston, to hear all about his experience with the CareerFoundry UX Design Program and how his career in the tech industry has really taken off since graduating. 

We love catching up with graduates and hearing about the great things they’ve gone on to achieve, and Norman is no exception! Now working in San Francisco as a UX designer at CDK Global, a leading provider of data and technology solutions in the US, Norman is really thriving in his new career.

During the event, hosted by Sami, one of our Senior Career Specialists, Norman had some great stories and pearls of wisdom to share with budding career-changers and CareerFoundry students alike. From designing MySpace profiles, to identifying pain points in your designs, we’ve picked out some of our favorite highlights from the event to share Norman’s journey from the Tenderloin District to the tech scene.

You can watch the full discussion in this video, or keep reading for the highlights from the event.

Originally from Palm Springs, Norman has been living in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2011. He’s always had an interest in design, and originally studied computer-aided design (CAD) at ITT Technical Institute:

“I got an associate of science degree in 2011, which was during the recession, and there was nobody hiring at that time. A year later, I enrolled with the Academy of Arts University to study industrial design. I moved to San Francisco for that, and I was there for a semester and a half but I had to drop out because it was a very expensive school. Between leaving university and up to 2017, I was working retail jobs and in the hospitality industry, and then I decided to get back into design.”

CAD involves architectural design, highly technical drawing, and very intensive software that basically makes Photoshop look like a dream! With a background in this very technical design, Norman decided to get a taste of various design industries over the years: 

“I knew that I wanted to get into design before I even graduated high school but I didn’t know which type of design suited me best. I started with CAD, but then I studied industrial design where I was learning physical product design and even automotive design. Before I got into UI design, I started off with graphic design.

I’m going to really age myself right now—this was all the way back in the MySpace era! I would make different types of profile designs and create HTML ready for people to download and plug into their MySpace profile. It was fun! I had a good time doing that, which is why I got into graphic design. Then, I decided to learn UI design, and then, after a while, I started learning about UX. This was all before I even signed up with CareerFoundry.”

Despite lots of great experience and an evident passion for design, Norman admits he was pretty lost on his career path, and lacking direction for what he really wanted to do for a living:

“I knew that I wanted to be a designer, I was just stuck figuring out which steps to take to make it a reality. San Francisco is very expensive, so when I moved here it was very tough. My first apartment was in the most dangerous area of the city, the Tenderloin, and I was sharing a studio apartment with not just one, but two other people. It was pretty bad.

“Since I dropped out of the Academy of Arts, I was working retail and hospitality jobs, and I honestly didn’t know what I was doing or where I was headed at the time of my life. I was in my early 20s and I didn’t have much direction. It all started clicking around 2017 though. I started to ask myself important questions like: Where am I going in my life? Is what I’m currently doing something that I’m passionate about? What skills do I have that I can utilize in another profession?”

After a lot of research and soul-searching, Norman discovered that UX was the sweet spot in the design industry that he was looking for:

“The more I learned about UX, the more I thought OK, this is something that I can definitely get into! 

I love the creative aspect of it, and that it brings in research and user understanding and empathy. That stood out to me because of my previous roles in hospitality and retail, actually—even when I was working for a jewelry designer, I learned a lot from her about business. 

Elements of those industries are some things that you think of as a UX designer—business requirements and criteria, empathy for the user, understanding the problem, and finding a solution. It all just kind of clicked for me.”​​​

Norman took the UX Design Program and began studying with CareerFoundry while still working two jobs in retail and hospitality. His daily routine at that time is exhausting just to read about!

“I had to work two jobs and adapt to a new school. I’d wake up at 6am, be at work at 8am, and then I’d leave for my other job at 4pm. I would be working there until 11-11.30pm and wouldn’t get home until midnight, when I’d put in an hour or two of work with CareerFoundry, and then go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again. That was the hardest part: balancing all that work and keeping my sanity and energy intact.”

Despite a busy routine and managing studying while working, Norman recognised that the project-based curriculum at CareerFoundry suited his learning style, and would help him accelerate building his portfolio, with ample support along the way:

“I chose CareerFoundry because I felt a little more secure knowing I’d be working with a mentor, a tutor, and a career specialist, and knowing I’d get to make actual projects for my portfolio. They might not be real-life projects, but that’s fine; you don’t need to have real-life projects to get your foot in the door.”

Speaking of getting your foot in the door, how did Norman get started in his search for a UX design role?

“I started with where the recruiters or managers are going to look first: the portfolio and resume. I got as much feedback as I could on my resume from my mentor, tutor and career specialist, and even industry professionals I had connected with. 

A quote from Norman about his career change journey

Recruiters already know what you can do—they’ve seen your portfolio and resume, they’ve seen the skills that you have and the tools that you use, so the interview is a chance for you to show what makes you a good fit for that role or for that team. It took me a while to learn that, but now I know I have to breathe, relax, and just be myself.”

By the time Norman graduated from CareerFoundry he had four projects in his portfolio: two from the UX Design Program itself, and two from the Voice User Interface Specialization Course he went on to complete. But the importance of keeping your portfolio fresh and up-to-date is something that Norman has prioritized. He has continued to add projects to his portfolio to make sure it fully represents his whole skillset as a designer, as well as showcasing his curious mind and willingness to learn new skills and take on new challenges:

“Over time, I started adding more projects to my portfolio. I’d say half were my own case studies of some pain points I identified myself in various projects and thought I could figure out solutions for. Others were freelance projects, where I built out the whole entire process and worked on putting that in my portfolio.

The most recent one I did with two other CareerFoundry students, and that was fun. We did a lot of great user cases with each other. I ended up with six or eight projects in my final portfolio. I learned through a networking event with LinkedIn that you should have at least six projects in your portfolio, and have a good, compelling story about yourself.”

And although it might sound intimidating to have at least six projects in your portfolio, webinar host Sami explains that it doesn’t have to be so scary. Design projects and opportunities are everywhere:

“There are plenty of places to find projects. If you look at Norman’s portfolio, you’ll see he was freelancing with friends and he even helped me with my website! I’ve seen students do things like a daily UI challenge, or redesign a menu at their favorite coffee shop—you can find projects everywhere.”

Norman clearly did a lot of preparation to set him up for the job hunt, but did anything surprise him during the process? Honestly, he admits his main struggle was purely job hunting in a global pandemic, when businesses were closing in 2020 and he knew he was living in one of the most expensive cities in the world and had to keep a roof over his head:

“I knew right off the bat that it wasn’t going to be a quick trip—it was going to be a long road and it was going to be hard. I went into the job hunt with that thought in mind because I know how competitive it is in San Francisco, especially when you’re going up against people that have three or four years of experience in the industry and you’re just starting off.

But you can learn from the process. Whenever I would interview but not succeed, I would try to figure out where my weaknesses were and what could I do to improve them. For example if it had something to do with my resume or my portfolio, I would go back and enhance that area, and then try again.”

A quote from Norman about his career change journey

Almost six months into his job search, Norman sealed the deal and landed a role at CDK Global. His drive to succeed in a new industry is commendable; despite coming to the table with not as much on paper, Norman was in it to win it:

“It really does come down to drive, passion, and focus. You can take courses like CareerFoundry to learn, but if you don’t have the passion, the drive, and the focus for it, then it’s going to be that much harder. You’ve got to be really focused to study, you’ve got to be driven and want to learn new skills, and learn everything around a new topic.”

Norman is now really thriving at CDK Global. But what does a typical day look like for him as a UX designer?

“It’s very important to have a routine. I usually wake up around 6.30am and have my morning coffee, then check my emails and my schedule for the day as there might be usability sessions or user interviews set up. We do a daily stand-up with the product owners and development team to give updates on what happened the day before, and plan ahead for the rest of the day.

After that, the UX team usually sync up with our PO (product owner). We discuss tasks in the backlog and figure out any pain points—this is the time to ask a lot of questions! It’s a great learning environment where we can all learn from each other and come up with some great solutions through collaboration.

Speaking of which, the UX designers often have virtual meetings where we share our designs and get feedback. Even if our work is in the early stages—rough sketches or Miro boards (an essential UX design tool), it’s good to get that valuable feedback from the team before getting to the high-fidelity point. I find it best to get feedback early and build from there.”

UX is certainly a field for lifelong learners now. After adapting to a new study schedule with CareerFoundry, keeping momentum up during an intense job search, and settling in to a new role, Norman understands the importance of keeping his skills sharp in the world of UX:

“It was a big learning curve to begin with, but it’s going to be like this throughout the entire profession. You always need to keep learning, especially in the tech world. Things are going to change quickly. You’re probably going to need to learn new software or design tools that have just been introduced into the field, or maybe new design practices. 

For example, there are a couple of people on my team that have been in the field for quite some time, and some of them didn’t know what a user persona was, or didn’t understand what the purpose of a journey map was. It just goes to show how fast this industry can change and grow and how you need to keep educating yourself.”

And Norman is certainly practicing what he preaches. He continues to keep track of his achievements in the job and recommends this for all newcomers to the field:

“Once you get hired, make sure you document all the things that you’re doing and what you’ve accomplished in your new role, so that when you do a review session you can bring that to the table.

It’s your time to shine and be able to brag about yourself a little bit, and also show where you might want to develop in your role and within your skillset.”

Norman’s certainly juggling a lot, so how does he maintain a good work life balance? Thankfully, CDK Global provide ample support for Norman to maintain a healthy lifestyle:

“My work life balance is perfect. My company is very good about that. They make sure we always take our paid time off because they want our brains to be fresh. They actively say they want us to be healthy and happy. Last week my boss advised us to take off Friday for Memorial Weekend. He said to have a four day weekend and encouraged us to not open our laptops. We take work life balance seriously; you don’t want to run on fumes or you don’t want to short circuit your brain, because you’re not really useful if you can’t think clearly.”

With some final words of wisdom, here is Norman’s closing advice to other CareerFoundry students currently going through the program, or getting started in a new industry:

“Stay positive, stay focused. You will get there. Keep that drive and that focus, and don’t be afraid to reach out to your mentors or tutors or whoever can help you to improve. If you need help, or if you have questions that need answering, there’s nothing wrong with getting those answers. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a dumb question. Trust me, I ask plenty of them! I wish you the best of luck with your journey.”

With that, we’ll leave you with Norman’s inspiring career change journey to energize you throughout your day!

If you’re feeling motivated by Norman’s career as a UX designer and want to know if it’s the right path for you too, try this free introductory short course. If you’d like more advice on how you can get a job in the tech industry, we can recommend speaking with one of our program advisors.

by Alison Ward on 7 February 2022

About the author

Alison Ward

Originally from northern England, Alison’s marketing background ranges from gaming, to sports, to the arts. When she’s not writing about CareerFoundry’s inspiring alumni, she can be found doing yoga, reading a weird book, or exploring new restaurants and cafes around Berlin.