close
Interview
October 22, 2021

Matt Tomko

Young ≠ Inexperienced: Why It’s Important to Validate Your Work

October 22, 2021

Young people are often perceived as inexperienced because of the lack of 'official' desk jobs. While in most cases this might be true, the design industry welcomes talents of all ages. To discuss this topic further, we invited Matt Tomko, a Senior Product Designer at AT&T and an author of the article 'How I have 15 years of UX experience at 23 years old.' Together we discovered how validating all life experiences affected his future career choices and why everyone should have an activity just for fun.

Matt Tomko, Senior Designer at AT&T

Matt Tomko is a 23-year-old Product Designer. He’s been a Senior Designer for Mobile Apps at AT&T and a Product Designer for V1 of multiple startups’ products. Matt believes in empowering designers (no matter their background) to produce informed, accessible and elegant design work.

Question Logo

MATT, PLEASE TELL US A BACKSTORY OF YOUR ARTICLE AT MEDIUM THAT GOT A LOT OF ATTENTION AND BECAME THE BASIS OF THIS INTERVIEW

 

Hi! I’m Matt, and I’m a Product Designer (and a lifelong designer in one capacity or another). Earlier this year, I wrote an article and expected very little reaction. This article is ‘How I have 15 years of UX experience at 23 years old’. It meant to be a bit of a jab at unrealistic experience requirements of entry-level jobs, as well as my way to validate years of hard work in design and research that I had previously downplayed as ‘just a hobby’. 

 

I decided to write it when I first returned to my parents’ house at the start of the pandemic. I found a big plastic bin full of 3D paper models of phones, tablets and laptops that I had made between 8 and 16 years old. Back then, I seriously considered Product Design as a full-time career. This felt like a confirmation that I should pursue that decision of the past version of myself.

Matt’s first 3D models

I decided to recount how those paper models led me to my current career in design and realized that it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to count all those years of designing UI and UX on paper as legitimate experience. I wrote the article with selfish intentions — to document how I felt and how I’d come to validate years of my hard work — but the article has really resonated with other designers! 

 

What I thought was my unique experience, turned out to be a common lack of validation that we allow ourselves as designers. So knowing that my words have helped even one other designer feel valid in their non-traditional experience and background is the ultimate unexpected bonus for me.

Quote Icon
What a lot of young designers don’t realize is how much your manager or supervisor will appreciate your honesty about something you haven’t learned or gained experience in yet
Question Logo

WHAT HELPED YOU VALIDATE YOUR EXPERIENCE THAT IS OFTEN DOWNPLAYED AS A ‘HOBBY’? IN OTHER WORDS, HOW DID YOU REALIZE IT’S NOT JUST A HOBBY?

 

A bad habit that I’ve only recently learned to break is playing down my previous design work that I didn’t pursue explicitly for academic or monetary gain. I truly believed that because the work I was most passionate about was done outside of school or my jobs, it had little or no real value, other than being fun and interesting. 

 

Spending time on projects just because you like them is crucial. But you should also recognize that work you didn’t get compensated for in some way or another still has value. I realized that only you assign that value yourself and you should be proud of it, even if you think nobody else will agree with you or understand it.

Matt’s WFH station

Question Logo

LET’S TALK ABOUT JOB HUNTING. HOW DID YOUR FIRST JOB INTERVIEWS GO? 

 

I had to work on empowering myself and on my non-traditional experience before anyone else started recognizing it. My first job interviews were a disaster because I lacked confidence and showed up ready to downplay myself from the very first question. 

 

What changed things was writing that article and presenting myself with confidence. Interviewers would mention that they had read my article and appreciated it, or seen themselves in it. That opened the door to presenting myself with significantly more confidence.

Question Logo

WITH SUCH AN ATYPICAL EXPERIENCE UNDER YOUR BELT, HOW DID YOU LAND A PRODUCT DESIGNER POSITION AT AT&T? 

 

At some point, they started approaching me about jobs I hadn’t even applied for, rather than staring at an endless stream of identical rejection emails from ‘no-reply@’. That’s how I landed at AT&T — I was approached by a recruiter directly. 

 

To me, the interview process seemed pretty standard for any design role. Confidence can’t get you a job by itself (at least I haven’t seen it happen), so I did need to be ready to present my work and also know what I was talking about. But being prepared and confident in those interviews delivered the best result I’d ever had.

Quote Icon
You assign that value and you should be proud of it, even if you think nobody else will agree with you or understand it
Question Logo

YOU ARE A SUCCESSFUL SENIOR DESIGNER AT AT&T, AND YOU’RE ONLY 23. HOW DO YOU COPE WITH THE PRESSURE OF BEING A RELATIVELY YOUNG PERSON IN A SENIOR POSITION AT A HUGE CORPORATION?

 

I felt absolutely intimidated coming into this role. 

 

There were a lot of new systems to learn and integrate into my design process, and I felt like I was years behind other designers on the team. Even though I had worked really hard to validate my work and to get rid of that pesky imposter syndrome, it did still get to me a bit in the beginning. 

 

What really helped was my team’s attitude and working style. I think that in the end, on any good design team, the design speaks for itself. If you put in hard work and apply what you’ve learned, the only thing you can’t have as a younger designer is knowledge of specific standards that work for a given team or company. But even that can be learned pretty quickly if you’re paying attention. 

 

The team at AT&T was welcoming and helpful from the start, and it felt like any team member could share their input and have it be legitimately considered. I appreciated that openness. It allowed me to grow quickly and do some of my best work to date. I think there will always be pressure when you’re a younger person entering a team of older designers. But it helps to remember that it’d be counterproductive for them to use that against you rather than pull in your strengths to improve the design.

Quote Icon
I think there will always be pressure when you’re a younger person entering a team of older designers
Question Logo

YOU MENTIONED THE ‘IMPOSTER SYNDROME’ KICKING IN AT THE BEGINNING OF WORKING AT AT&T. HOW DO YOU COPE WITH MOMENTS OF SELF-DOUBT AT WORK NOWADAYS? 

 

I’ve spoken to so many designers who have said that imposter syndrome almost never goes away, even at the senior level. There are two things that help me with it, and I share them with any budding designer. 

 

  • First, talk to other designers, especially those who work outside of your company and are a level or two above you. Being able to openly speak with another person in the field without the fear of being judged or having it impact my employment has made me realize that feeling the way I do is absolutely normal. 
  • Second, embrace it. Reach for the things that intimidate you about a new role or project. The sooner you address those things and are open and honest about what you don’t understand, the faster you’ll learn them and overcome that fear. What a lot of young designers don’t realize is how much your manager or supervisor will appreciate your honesty about something you haven’t learned or gained experience in yet. This way, you can easily plan for your learning process.

Top-3 go-to software for a productive work

Figma
Figma

It’s the design software I’ve used the most and I love how easy it makes collaborating and keeping designs current and consistent across teams

Notion
Notion

It has a really clean interface and I find it helps me organize my thoughts and layout to-dos on a day-to-day basis

Procreate
Procreate

I use it because of free illustration and ideation. Though my work doesn’t typically include illustrations, it’s fun to sketch outflows freehand and doodle when you’re lacking inspiration.

Question Logo

WITH WFH, IT’S BEEN ESPECIALLY DIFFICULT FOR LOTS OF PEOPLE TO KEEP A WORK-LIFE BALANCE. HOW DO YOU PROTECT YOURSELF FROM WORKING AFTER HOURS? 

 

I’ll be blunt, I absolutely reject the theory that a good employee is one who works extra hours and dedicates all their time to their job. 

 

  • I’ve found myself in that position before, and it always inhibited my work more than it helped it. So I only work within my designated working hours. That means any emails I get after 6 pm will be answered after 10 am the next day. 
  • I make it a priority to do something active before work, like the gym or cycling. I’m sure everyone has heard this tip a million times, but I promise that it actually helps.
  • I give myself things to look forward to, whether it’s time to play music or have dinner with a friend after work. It’s a nice way to shift my brain out of working mode and into real-people-in-real-life mode. 
  • I also encourage everyone to have activities they reserve for fun and for purely selfish purposes. I think it’s the only healthy way to really explore your passions. When you get wrapped up in assigning a monetary value to those activities, a switch goes off in your brain — and you can no longer pursue it with the same pure excitement and open-mindedness. 

 

To boil that all down to its purest form; take breaks, stay active, give yourself rewards to look forward to, and give priority to growing and developing as a human, not just an employee.

Matt’s personal Notion planning page

Question Logo

WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT ACTIVITY THAT YOU CONSIDER JUST A ‘HOBBY’? 

 

In addition to design and visual art, I’ve been a lifelong musician. I’ve learned to play several instruments including the piano, violin, cello and bass guitar, but I also love to produce and mix music. It’s just a ‘hobby’ for now, but I’ve got plans to change that. 

 

Back to my point. Not having the pressure of relying on music for income means that I’ve been able to learn and refine my production skills on my own terms, and I’ve loved every single second of it. If one day it contributes to my income, it will be a bonus. But at the moment, I’m really just doing it for fun and that’s been more than fulfilling.

Question Logo

WE ARE APPROACHING THE END OF THIS INTERVIEW. HOW DO YOU THINK THE DESIGN INDUSTRY WILL EVOLVE IN THE NEXT 10 YEARS? 

 

What I’ve seen recently as a trend in design is a movement towards larger teams with more specialized positions for talent. I believe that design teams will continue to diversify and will look for unique backgrounds and experiences to bring a wider perspective and inclusivity to their products.

 

I’ve also noticed a boom in pursuing design as a career since the start of the pandemic. This means that the market for designers is becoming incredibly saturated. If design becomes recognized more widely and pursued as a discipline in the next 10 years, designers will have to find a way to stand out.

Matt recommends checking out these two platforms

The Interaction Design Foundation has lots of cool open-source articles about UX and UI design that I find fun to look through.

 

Designlab is the course I decided to take when I was pursuing a more formal UX/UI education. Also, through its network l found a great mentor and new friends.

Question Logo

ANY FINAL TIPS FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE PROBLEMS VALIDATING THEIR EXPERIENCE?

 

The biggest struggle you’ll have with validating your experience will be from yourself, I can almost guarantee it. Be kind to yourself, recognize the hard work you’ve done and be empowered to present yourself knowing that your unique perspective makes you highly valuable not only to any employer but to yourself in the first place. 

 

Work on telling your story with confidence and be proud of how far you’ve come!

 


 

If you want to tell a story about your career or share your expert opinion on the modern design, send us a pitch to serafima@flowmapp.com