Using your time in school to expand your resume & network

Using your experience in school to expand your resume and network.

Using your experience in school to expand your resume and network.

Many will look at their time in school as a means to an end. I would like to offer that it is the beginning node of engagement with your career. As you are learning, your mind is trying to grapple with new information. You are asking the questions that people around the world have all asked. Keep in mind...this is an optimal time to start marketing yourself. 

During the dotCrash of early 2K - I returned to college to study development in hopes of getting a decent job. Competition was fierce because the economy was beginning to crash. During the time in school... I found that teaching someone else what I was learning, helped me to retain the knowledge and build experience. Instead of just doing the assignment. So, I tried to teach the assignment through a series of blog posts on my school website. I assumed that if I was struggling to learn these lessons, someone else was undoubtedly having similar problems.  Through the maintaining & constant writing in my blog... I began to develop a following which turned into interest from recruiters. 

An excellent example of how this really blew up for me

One day I heard someone talking about UX as a term. It was barely 2k and wasn't being used in the tech sector with any sort of frequency, if at all. At this stage, most people didn't know what UX was. I liked the idea of designing based on how people interact with various computer systems, so I decided to write a blog post on my school website about what UX was and how it applied to what I did in the tech industry.

The blog (aka: whitepaper), I wrote on usability was entirely for my benefit. I was writing about UX with the idea that if I can explain it to others, then I had the comprehension skills and knowledge needed to apply said principles in the work place.

Much to my surprise, it took off. I wasn't even out of college and I was suddenly getting multiple calls from recruiters, on a daily basis, asking me about whether I was available to speak to their company on UX design and/or, if I was looking for work.

To be clear - I wrote a paper on a new technology I was learning in college - AS I was learning it - and got a job at Microsoft making more money than I had ever made in my life.

Learn through teaching - The exercise

Document what you are learning and keep an online as part of your homework. As you learn new functionality, code, or ideas, try and explain the process to the “old you” ...I know that is a bit confusing. But imagine you could go back in time and teach yourself what you just learned to do. How would you explain this new skill to the old you, in a way that you would best understand? How would that look? The bottom line is that by breaking it into consumable chunks and sharing that information, you do a couple of really great things. You better retain the information, and you share that information with others. This last part is important because it does several things for you. 

  • a.) It shows your knowledge of the technology. Recruiters will see this as an explanation of your knowledge and a good sample of your skill set.
  • b.) It shares that knowledge with others and improves your network. By  sharing your knowledge, people begin to look to you for answers and this makes you a more valuable commodity on the work market.
  • c.) It establishes you as an authority in the subject matter. You become the "PLACE-TO-TURN-TO" for information. 

Creating a client when you don't have the experience.

Another school story - When I returned to college in early 2K It was a really difficult time. I had to manage a full load, get homework done, pay my rent at the night job, AND...find clients to use as guinea pigs. Even when I did manage to find a client, their schedule seldom lined up with mine and I was tired of having my grades resting on whether or not a client was getting back to me on time. 

MY solution to having no real world experience in tech

I thought for a moment about something that I was passionate about - Sports, Fashion, Music, Food... And then researched a little to find local companies in those fields.

For me - I looked at Starbucks - Coffee ruled my life and it was definitely something that was getting me through finals.

I was in a design course and didn't have a real world client so I pretended that I was working at Starbucks. I looked at a part of their site that I thought could use improvement. I imagined what that would look like and then did a re-design of the UI. I built a working front end with the UI improvement but wanted to really hit it out of the park so I joined forces with a friend that happened to be a developer in the class. He helped me to build all the functionality that I didn't know how to build. We Documented the build covering our roles and making sure that we met the requirements. For our final project - we presented an improved & working (albeit - limited version) of the online Starbucks coffee store. We documented the entire process and gave credit to each of us for the pieces we did. Our final was used as an example of what others should be doing and, if I am honest, it helped land me more than a couple jobs.

Did I have real world experience when I left college? Absolutely!  I may not have worked for Starbucks but I had a project that could demo to potential employers a sample of:

  • How my mind works
  • My process from start to finish
  • A well documented study of our findings and why we were making the changes we made.
  • A working example that incorporate my code and design abilities
  • Demonstrated the ability I had to work with a team to problem solve as a collaboration.
  • Did the same for my project partner.

 Is this what companies and recruiters are looking for?


 The take away exercise

  • If you are a designer:  Choose a web site that covers a topic you are passionate about and find ways to improve it. Document and post to your website portfolio
  • If you are a usability specialist: Organize a use group and do a client study on a website that is in a field of interest to you. Document and post to your website portfolio
  • If you are a developer: Find something that someone is doing really well - or really poorly- and show an alternate solution. Document and post to your website portfolio

Mix & match to find your team

Chances are - if you are in a web program in college - developers, UX specialists, and designers all have at least a couple classes together. I was always looking for people that had different but similar skills in my field of study and looked at ways we could work together. This really helped me improve my communication and is one of the reasons I do so well working in the tech sector. 

The point is this -

In the real world you need to think on your feet because no one works in a vacuum. Being able to show your skills (especially as it pertains to collaboration), will go a long way to selling those skills to an open market.  

Here is what I would do:


Say that I am a designer and I want to build a social website based on facebook. Let's say I have an idea that might improve the login process. I could just design a concept and put it out there - OR - I can look through my class and connect with a developer student that might need to demonstrate their code abilities for another class. If we work together to create a working sample of the improved login process, you will be demonstrating your ability to:

  • See a problem and create a solution
  • Demonstrate your ability to work in collaboration with others
  • Demonstrate your skill and working knowledge without having an actual client.

Document the the entire collaboration in a client study and share it to a blog or on your web portfolio. If you are working with an existing site - Simply clearly state that your design is a conceptual "re-imagining" of (for instance),The login process for facebook.

While it should be clear to anyone viewing your portfolio that you didn't actually work for facebook - what you will be showing is a working version of a login process with working code, design, and a documented process that explains why you did the re-design, and if you have usability people to help, you can test the usability versus the actual product and document your findings. 

You don't need a huge resume if you can clearly demonstrate your abilities.

All of the above is to say this - College is a great time to compile the tools you will need to, either start your next company, or procure the job that will change your life.

Don't look at college as something you have to do before you can start working. Embrace college as an interactive resume builder designed to help you land the job of your dreams. Market yourself everyday. Remember - If you are learning something new... there will be others asking those same questions and no topic is too small.