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Web Design + New Media Grad Turns Internship into Dream Job at Optimizely

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Neha Saigal. Courtesy of Neha Saigal.

What does it take to turn an internship into a dream job? Recent Academy of Art University graduate Neha Saigal (M.F.A., Fall 2014) knows. This tenacious School of Web Design + New Media star combined a cutting-edge portfolio, research, and a customized communications approach into a recipe for success.

Saigal started full-time at San Francisco tech start-up Optimizely in January. Last fall, I sat down with Saigal and quizzed her on her choices, challenges and advice for students. The result is a lesson in the right way to kick off a career.

Why Opitmizely?

Optimizely is in a really interesting space. “A/B” user testing analytics is very cutting-edge and technical. It’s really challenging as a designer. I also like the size. It’s a mid-sized start-up; when you work at a company that size, your chances to grow are much higher. And Optimizely was rated one of the best first jobs in San Francisco, according to an article I found.

How many people now work at Optimizely?

At the beginning of 2014, there were 200, now they’re 275.

Wow, growing fast!

Yeah! And they actually just got $57 million in second-round funding, so they’re doing well.

Impressive. What’s the story behind you getting the internship?

Actually, I did my first internship back in summer 2013 with a company called CloudOn in Palo Alto. I got it purely through a lot of online applications. I applied to like 40 places and I got the internship.

At CloudOn, I developed a really good rapport with the lead designer there, Christian Crumlish. He’s written a lot of books and he is friends with Jared Spool, so he’s really well known in the industry. He has a lot of connections.

That connection lead to the internship at Optimizely?

I kind of stayed in touch with [Christian]. And earlier this year when I was looking, I emailed him, and I was like, “I’m looking for jobs, internships, whatever—I’m graduating at the end of the year.”

So Christian got in touch with this engineer at Optimizely, who he didn’t know, but he just connected me with him. The engineer connected me to the technical recruiter, and then I went through the normal interview process.

But I got in through a referral. It’s always better to do that. It was my first internship that got me my second internship, and now my job.

 

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Technical process visualization from “Aware” Stress Reduction App, Neha Saigal’s Fall 2014 M.F.A. Thesis Project for the School of Web Design + New Media. Courtesy of Neha Saigal.

So, going in to the internship, were there things in particular you were hoping to learn? Any skills you wanted to master?

I would say … if I talk about my internship from last summer, that was my first real industry experience. I needed quite a bit of handholding. I had been at school and done projects, but it’s different in the real world. The pace is so much faster. It’s shocking how little time you have to deliver sometimes. So, I got a lot of mentorship in my first internship.

At Optimizely, the company culture is very much based on ownership. You can kind of drive your own projects. I worked on two teams over the summer, working on the analytics. I started doing coding in the beginning, but eventually I decided to stick with product design. In the long run, when I’m working there full-time, that’s what I’ll be doing—and I’m going to try to get more into prototyping.

Tell us more about your role as a product designer.

The role that I was hired for in January is as a product designer, which is basically a hybrid role. At Optimizely, they have a UX research team, but my role now is product design. It’s an engineering-heavy environment. This is great because I didn’t know that this role was what I was actually looking for.

Last year, I worked as an user experience designer and research intern, and you don’t really see the product end-to-end. But as a product designer, you do everything. You work with the researcher, you observe, you talk to people within the company and you do the interaction design all the way to the final.

We have a design critique every week and say, “Hey, this is what I’m doing.” I was working with people who had really different skill-sets, which was really, really awesome.

What has been your greatest challenge?

I think, in the beginning, I had to learn to understand the product. It’s very technical. It took me a few weeks. Another challenge was working in analytics. I was on the stats side of the product. It took some time to understand that really well so that I could communicate it.

And in a short period of time.

Yeah. Projects moved really, really quickly. The workflow is agile, so every two weeks it’s a sprint. At the beginning of every two weeks you have x number of tasks that you have to finish by the end of those two weeks.

What was the interview process like?

I had three interviews. The first one was with the technical recruiter, which was a phone screen. [That was] followed by the second one with my manager, which was a 30-minute general interview. The third one was on-site, which was six hours long!

I presented three portfolios. One was my thesis, and then the work I did at my previous internship and finally, this other app I made in my mobile web tech class with Andrea [Pimentel]. All that was followed by four other interviews and an on-the-spot app building brainstorm session.

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Dashboard design from “Aware” Stress Reduction App, Neha Saigal’s Fall 2014 M.F.A. Thesis Project for the School of Web Design + New Media. Courtesy of Neha Saigal.

Wow! Did anything from school translate into helping you with the interview?

Midpoint presentation made me really good at presenting stuff, that’s for sure. And obviously, the portfolio. But I think the thesis process is great, more than any other project. In the thesis, you work on every aspect of a product, and if you do a good job and you’re actually doing everything, it’s a really good reference point.

I’ve done all this research, and it really shows. That is what [Optimizely] actually liked about my project. It showed a hybrid skill-set, because it was research and visual design, and that’s what my role is going to be.

Okay, last question. Do you have any advice for students who are looking for an internship?

There [are] a lot of good sites for interviews. Simply Hired and InternMatch are good. But actually, when I was looking, I also just emailed some start-ups saying, “Hey, I really like what you’re doing.” And then there’s LinkedIn, of course, and Interaction Design Association, AIGA; they all have job postings. … It’s really good to be able to write something specific about each company in a cover letter, otherwise it looks generic, like you just changed the name and sent it.

I liked the portfolio presentation. I know not every interview has that, but depending on the role that you’re looking for, you can often find the interview questions online.

Know your strengths, your weaknesses, what your process is. That comes up in every interview I’ve done. They always ask, “What’s your design process?” That’s something you really need to have down pat and be able to talk about. So I think, just preparing. It’s like the midpoint presentation, you prepare enough and you’re not nervous anymore.

Update: Saigal is now working at Optimizely full-time and is fitting in great. I’m so proud of her and wish her the best of luck in her career. Watch tje video of her final thesis presentation below.