Welcome to the first interview from the series of interviews with top-tech companies and their talents. Meet Nina Geometrieva!
Nina is a self-taught designer from Skopje currently working for Google Maps in Tokyo. She is a winner of many prestigious global design awards and creator of viral designs with millions of views.
We met Nina last year when we collaborated on a UX/UI webinar named – How To Prevent The Murder Of Your Design. A few months ago, we got in touch again.
Inspired by her energy and motivation to always give a hand to young and upcoming designers, we collaborated again on the first event organized by Brainster’s Co-innovation & Hiring team – Companies & Talents.
Hi Nina! Tell us a bit about yourself. What is happening in your life right now?
I’m enjoying my last few months in Japan before moving to the US (I’ve been looking forward to this pretty much my whole career). I took up an opportunity, and I am really excited about what is coming up next.
Thank you for being one of our best collaborators! What you do to support the community is really important for young talents at the beginning of their careers. Tell us why you feel it is essential to give back to the community?
Always a pleasure to work with you! I’ve been thinking a lot about my own thorny beginnings as a self-taught designer and how much I wished I had someone to ask for advice. At the time, I lived with my parents in Skopje and had just dropped out of college. All my design knowledge was based on Google searches and YouTube videos. That’s why nowadays, I’m making myself available for mentorship, hoping to help others who might be walking a similarly thorny path.
How hard was it to land a job at Google, and what was the interview process like?
Landing a job at Google wasn’t easy. Just getting on the radar of Google recruiters by itself was a multi-year challenge. My first interview with them was an epic failure, which is not surprising considering it is 7 times harder to get into Google than Harvard.
Truth be told, I had gotten used to failures throughout my career — from a last-minute visa failure with Soundcloud in Berlin to that time Microsoft reached out to recruit me for a super cool project only to go “nevermind” a day later after finding out I’m from Macedonia.
And yet, failing the Google interview was painful, like a giant slap in the face. It was also humbling and made me push even harder. That all paid off a few years later when a Google Design Manager stumbled upon my work, and I got an invitation for a job interview again.
The interview process was unlike anything I had seen at that point. It started with a phone call to assess my broad skill set, after which I was given a hard, ambiguous design problem to solve in a matter of days. This was the industry standard back then, but nowadays, these design exercises are abandoned across the industry.
Next up was the final boss of all interviews — the dreaded onsite. Google flew me to the headquarters in California and scheduled the interviews for the next day. I remember pacing in the hotel room, barely getting any sleep.
The day started with a 45 min presentation of my design exercise and portfolio, followed by multiple 1on1’s assessing various aspects of my skills and personality such as problem-solving, creativity, leadership, communication, execution, sense of aesthetics, thriving in ambiguity, etc.
The most interesting one was the whiteboard challenge, which is similar to the design exercise except that you only have 45 minutes. The goal was to understand how I think and solve problems, not really to produce a finalized design-ready mock, so I recall brainstorming together with the interviewer, going wild with ideas, and then pulling back and trying to structure my approach. It was genuinely fun.
We guess you’ve been to other interviews, but what makes “the Google interview” different?
As opposed to interviewing with startups, the Google interview was very structured and comprehensive. At the same time, it took quite a bit of time from start to end.
Comparing the Google interview to other extensive tech company interviews (Facebook, Instagram, Apple), it’s pretty similar. At Google and Facebook, designers are interviewed for a general design role. Only at the end of the process, they’re matched with a team, unless they are headhunted for a specific role (like in my case).
At Apple, each team has its own way of evaluating candidates, almost functioning like a separate company, so you really need to pick which team you’re applying for in the first place. Facebook has an interesting “app critique” interview about talking through every aspect of a chosen app on your phone — from its value proposition and target users to the design decisions and space for improvements.
Can you tell us some tips & tricks for a successful interview?
- Always prepare well
This way, you can maximize control over the outcome.
E.g., “Can you tell me a bit about yourself?” will always be the first question in every single interview for the rest of your career. You might as well come up with a great answer now and always leave a great first impression. Also, you’ll beat the anxiety in the first 5-10 mins, and everything will flow much smoother later on.
Similarly, “Do you have any questions?” is always the last one in an interview, so make sure to have great questions in mind. Google the top interview questions asked during interviews and prepare in-depth and honest answers. You don’t have to prepare an answer for each question, but you should know what you would like to answer.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses.
You should always emit your strengths through everything you do — your work, how you talk, and present to how you answer questions. When someone has no more than an hour to judge you, you should ensure everything screams your strengths.
Make it easier for them by creating a clear, consistent image of the kind of designer you are. No mixed signals, no confusion.
- Have the right mindset
As much as the company is interviewing you, you’re interviewing it too. A lot of time and resources go into hiring the right candidate for a role, often taking many months and costing thousands of dollars.
The company is often as desperate to find the right designer, as much as you’re desperate to find a job. It’s a two-way street. This is especially important to realize when negotiating and understanding your leverage.
What advice would you give to self-taught designers? How can they land their first job? And what are the 3 characteristics crucial for a successful career?
I’d say focus on building a solid portfolio with 2-3 projects first before trying to land your first full-time job. Publish your work online, ask for opinions from the design community, reach out to more experienced designers and ask for advice. Start building a name for yourself.
Embracing social media can absolutely change the course of your career, so invest time and energy in showing the work you’re proud of.
It’s hard to boil everything down to only 3 characteristics for a successful career, but I’ll give it a shot.
1) Child-like curiosity, because, without an honest desire to experiment and learn to build and break things, it’s simply impossible to make any progress.
2) Obsession, because succeeding in anything requires a total dedication of time and creativity. It’s common advice not to compare yourself to others, but I think there’s a healthy way to do that, so it motivates you to be better. Another common piece of advice is to seek a work-life balance. Again I disagree, especially at the beginning of your career. You should be naturally drawn to design so much that you can’t get enough of it, can’t shut up about it, or stop thinking about it. This is an irresistible pull that most of the best designers out there have, and they don’t feel like it’s a bad thing when they spend days and nights doing nothing but design.
3) Blind trust because you can’t achieve something unless you believe you can. But also, you can’t rationally believe you can until you witness yourself achieving it first. It’s a chicken and the egg problem and the only way to break out of it is to blindly believe you are indeed capable without having any proof. I’m talking about a belief as firm and unquestioning as the belief in the force of gravity. Manifest confidence 🙂
Can you briefly describe the difference between a freelance job & working for a big company like Google?
Freelance work at the core is consultancy work, which typically comes in the form of projects with a brief, a clear goal, and a timeline. Such projects can be entertaining because the work is always new and exciting. You can hop between industries and even roles and work with lots of exciting clients worldwide. This comes with fantastic flexibility to handpick every project and enjoy a remote work lifestyle.
At the same time, what’s usually missing in these projects is depth and follow-through. You don’t get to see your projects have an impact. You don’t get to ship improved versions nor form intuition about your users, market, and industry.
Working in-house at a tech company definitely gives you the space and resources to go deep on a problem and become an expert. However, the work is a lot more ambiguous, and there are no briefs. You create the briefs. I now see this as a pro because I like identifying the problems to solve, not just solve them. You do get to see your work to completion and impact, which is also a huge pro.
While this is currently changing, many tech companies still don’t offer the remote work flexibility of freelance, so that’s something to consider.
What does the process of creating something for Google look like?
It all starts with an idea, and ideas come from anywhere: designers, engineers, product managers, etc. Designers at Google are required to have a strong business sense, so they are heavily involved in defining both the user and product value for each feature and the product specifications before even doing any design work. At this early stage, any foundational research can come in handy for forming hypotheses.
The goal is to generate ideas, often by organizing and leading workshops and aligning the team on a solution. The product designer owns the complete user experience, from copywriting to motion and visual design. The next step is collaborating with many copywriters, graphic designers, and other UX partners to orchestrate the team effort towards making the solution happen.
As soon as a foundation is in place, the engineering team can already start planning implementation. At one point, validating concepts or running usability testing on solutions can help to increase confidence in the solution and to reduce the risk of failure.
Either way, striving for a minimum viable product for the first version of a launched feature is the industry standard. I like to remind my team that the solution also needs to be minimally lovable to contribute value in a meaningful way and even delight users.
After a series of reviews and feedback, implementation can continue full speed, with the product designer having more of an implementation support role. Product Designers at Google typically work on multiple projects at once, at different scopes and timeframes, ranging from simple additions or redesigns to making sense of ambiguous spaces that barely even have a defined problem statement yet.
How can companies effectively grow & keep talents? And why is this important?
Effective ways to retain talent, in the long run, are to enable growth opportunities, a healthy work environment, lots of flexibility, and rely on carrots rather than sticks. Some companies tend to prohibit side projects or talking to other recruiters. Possessive behaviors don’t retain talent, so respect is vital. People will inevitably like to try new things, and it’s just a matter of whether they have the opportunity inside the company or will they have to go out to do that. Common growth opportunities involve a choice between managing versus contributing as an individual, a path to changing ladders, mentorship, education reimbursement, and so on.
What are the talents looking to find in the top tech companies?
Aside from the unparalleled compensation and benefits, top tech is attractive due to the sheer number of opportunities to directly change the lives of millions of people, the incredible career growth and leadership opportunities, and the privilege to work alongside some of the most intelligent people on the planet. These are great reasons to get into top tech, but gimmicks aside, it all boils down to finding a supportive environment to grow, a great team, and the autonomy to make decisions and have ownership.
And lastly, how do you imagine the future in the next 10-20 years, in the context of jobs, remote work, skills & technology? And are you excited for it to come?
As usual, I’m very excited about the future! And the future is now because we’re already witnessing a significant revolution in the way we work. The old (pre-COVID) days of working in tech were all about free food and office perks. The new days are all about free will and flexibility.
I think that remote work is rapidly becoming one of the strongest cultural indicators in tech, synonymous with putting trust in employees and removing micromanagement. Many people are jumping ship from traditional companies just because they like the flexibility and level of respect and trust in a remote-friendly environment.
Aside from the way we work, the roles themselves are changing too. A designer a decade ago was super different than a designer today. UX design is no longer about interaction and UI only. It’s a lot more about product management and business too. Some designers get embedded into highly specialized machine learning teams or conversational UX designers who work with voice assistants like Siri.
Design roles evolve way faster than formal education can catch up, so I foresee an increased preference for courses and self-education over universities.
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