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Interview
June 7, 2022

Nina Geometrieva

You Don’t Need a Degree to Advocate Your Way to MAAMA

June 7, 2022

What if I told you that you don’t *necessarily* need a degree in order to get a job at Google or Instagram? Would you believe me? You should! If not me then our today’s guest, Senior Product Designer at Instagram, Nina Geometrieva, who dropped out of school many moons ago and still ended up in Instagram’s New York office. She got offers from three out of five MAAMA members (Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet, Meta, Amazon), and worked at two of these giants. In the interview, Nina reveals what the recruitment process looks like at Google, how to negotiate a higher salary and what it feels like to get an email from Instagram’s Head of Design.

Nina Geometrieva, Senior Product Designer at Instagram

Nina is a product designer at Instagram based in New York. She defines herself as a designer with a strong visual expression and a product mindset. Some of her award-winning works have gone viral over the years, and her work has appeared in major design publications.

Part 1. Nina’s Background

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Nina, please tell us a bit about yourself and where this interview finds you

Hi, I’m Nina, a product designer at Instagram based in New York. I learned design by myself, mostly online, and by observing others.

 

Originally from Eastern Europe, the career took me to unexpected places around the world. After a couple of short stints in Europe, I moved to Singapore, where I transitioned from visual to UX design and got hired by Google, and then to Japan, where I grew as a UX designer and started calling myself a product designer, and now just a few months ago I made it to New York.

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Wow! That is fascinating! Do you remember when you first got interested in design?

My first design influence was my dad. And he has nothing to do with design, aside from a great taste in aesthetics. I still keep a super cool Sun Microsystems pin he gave to me a few years back. I distinctly remember a Circus Medrano poster he took off the street to hang at home, which had a blinding neon pink background. I fell in love with the color combo.

 

He introduced me to Adobe Flash, and when I was 9 my design made it into the official New Year postcard for the Council of Europe in Macedonia.

 

Fast forward to my Computer Science college days, I was in a band and we needed a poster for our gig. I opened Photoshop and haven’t really closed it ever since (even though I no longer use it for my primary job).

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I also realized two big things: firstly, yay, I can get paid for this! Secondly, wait, I can get paid a lot more for this
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How did you study design? (at school, courses, library, etc.)

I started off with the sole interest in making beautiful things. I experimented with shape, color and layout in Photoshop and used Google search and Youtube to ask questions. With every new trick I’d learn, new opportunities would open up.

 

After moving to Singapore, I came across UX Designers for the first time. I was impressed by their analytical mindset and comprehensive understanding of the product. Ever since then, I learned a lot on the job by observing different people and trying things out.

Part 2. Work, work, work

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What did your first design job look like? What did you learn from it?

At my first design job, I’d collect any crumbs on the floor that more senior designers would drop. And I loved the work — I did anything from logos and brochures to websites and learned a ton of crafts.

 

I also realized two big things:

 

  1. Yay, I can get paid for this!
  2. Wait, I can get paid a lot more for this.

 

With this assumption, I tried freelance, and it went so well that I quit my job a few months after.

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My mindset shifted from “life happens to me” to “life happens by me”
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That’s a bold move! And soon after that, you got a job at Google, right? How did you learn about the job position?

Landing my job at Google wasn’t easy.

 

Just getting on the radar of Google recruiters can be a multi-year challenge. At one point I decided to give my best in putting together a portfolio and I asked a Google designer for advice on how to improve it in order to get an interview at Google. He gave me some advice and told me he would refer me if I wanted to. The mistake I made is choosing to interview for a role I knew nothing about. I was a visual designer then but I desperately wanted to interview for a UX role and, of course, the interview was an epic fail.

 

My next encounter with Google was while I worked at a local startup in Singapore, right as I was transitioning to a UX role. This time Google reached out to me because someone discovered my portfolio and loved it. I still had to go through the full interview process and pass the bar.

 

  1. It started with an interview over the phone to assess my broad skill set.
  2. Then I was given a hard, ambiguous design problem to solve in a matter of days.
  3. Next up was the final boss of all interviews — the dreaded onsite. Google flew me to the headquarters in California and I went through five 45-minute interviews where they assessed different aspects of my skills and personality.


My favorite part of every interview ever is always the whiteboard exercise, which is a design problem you need to solve in 45 mins. It feels a bit like a performance where I unravel my thoughts and personality. It can be especially fun when the interviewer engages and turns it into a collaborative session rather than a monologue.

From Nina’s Instagram page

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Sounds very stressful! If you had to choose, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your work journey at Google?

The first two years at Google were a challenging time in my career. This was mostly due to my shift from visual to UX design, but also due to the lack of support, micromanagement and power dynamics in my immediate team. Nonetheless, I loved the product we built and still learned a ton along the way.

 

In my second team, I immediately felt strong independence, allowing me to try, fail and learn on my own which supercharged my growth. I started developing a sense of agency and ownership. My mindset shifted from “life happens to me” to “life happens by me”. This gave me the confidence to get involved in product strategy and planning more deeply.

 

  • I also became more aware of my assumptions and thought processes when designing. I got better at asking and answering “why” questions. The level of scrutiny at a large tech company trains you to become very intentional in your decision-making.
  • I started putting all pieces of the puzzle — insights, data and intuition — together more seamlessly to get things done. I fully embraced a bootstrapping mindset.
  • As my core work became more comfortable, I started getting involved in additional efforts. One of them was designing for accessibility, and at some point, I led a Google Maps wide effort in making the app more accessible.

 

Part 3. Talk about money

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As a young professional, how did you learn to negotiate your salary?

At my first job interview, I fell into the most common salary negotiation trap: I blurted out a number. “350 euros a month”, which is precisely half a peanut, even for Macedonian standards. I remember my then manager’s reaction: “Pffft! You’re hired!”. I’ll never forget that smug “Pffft”.

 

In parallel, I started doing freelance and in just an hour or two a day I was earning multiple times more than my full-time job salary.

 

Salary negotiations only work if you have leverage, but given how desperate I was to leave my home country at the beginning of my career, I would have taken any job for any money. So I only really started having leverage after I moved to Singapore.

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I remember my then manager’s reaction: “Pffft! You’re hired!”. I’ll never forget that smug “Pffft”
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What are your go-to strategies to negotiate a salary or bonus now?

When I was interviewing with Grab, the largest unicorn startup in Singapore (now a public company), I wanted to increase my leverage so I applied for any available design roles with their competitor, Uber. Upon hearing that I’m interviewing with Uber, Grab fast-tracked my interviews and offered me a great base-heavy package.

 

When I interviewed with Google, I was offered a much better total compensation than the one I had at Grab, but the base salary itself was still lower. The Google recruiter told me the offer is non-negotiable and my friends also told me not to attempt negotiating with Google. But I remembered that “Pffft!” reaction from my first boss and decided to YOLO it and ask for more $$ using the Grab base as leverage. Guess what? It worked.

From Nina’s Instagram page

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Congrats on your most recent position at Instagram! Did you apply for the job or did they find you? 

Thank you! Facebook/Meta was reaching out to me regularly since 2017, but last year was the first time I considered their invitation to interview, with my eyes firmly set on Instagram. I love Instagram’s simplicity, I use the platform as a creator and I knew it would be dope to work there as a designer.

 

At the same time, I got a referral to Apple, and the interviews started in parallel. I was genuinely excited about both companies and I wanted to have options, or, at the very least, salary negotiation leverage. As it turns out, timing interviews is a form of art, but I somehow managed to receive an offer from both on the same day.

 

I brought the Instagram offer to Apple, and then the revised Apple offer to Instagram, and then I patiently waited in silence for one intense day. I woke up to an inbox full of beautiful emails from all the interviewers, each convincing me to join their company.

 

There was even an email from Luke, Instagram’s Head of Design! I had never seen anything like that, I cried out of overwhelming happiness, anxiety, confusion, and did I say happiness?!

 

Nested between those emails were two brand new offers from both Apple and Instagram. Identical and super strong. I wrote a draft email and took an hour to think it through before I finally hit “send” accepting the Instagram offer.

From Nina’s archives

Part 4. A portfolio, degree and other fantastic beasts

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Did a diploma take a part in your recruitment process at any point in your career?

I don’t think design recruiters particularly care about education. You might come across a design education requirement in various job descriptions but that’s often used as a proxy for experience. If you can demonstrate that you have the experience needed, your education won’t matter.

 

Immigration laws, on the other hand, tend to care a lot about degrees, and it’s super hard to move countries if you don’t have that piece of paper. I think a lot of these laws are yet to catch up to how the industry evolves and the increasing availability of free high-quality online education. By online education here I mean anything from Youtube videos, Twitter influencers and Medium articles to more traditional courses and books.

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Your experience is breaking so many barriers for people without an academic background dreaming about working at Google or Instagram. What, in your opinion, is more important than a degree. A portfolio?

I don’t think it all hinges on the portfolio but it plays a huge part. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I spend almost as many hours on the presentation of my work as on the work itself. Ok, maybe a tad embarrassed.

 

I sleep on it, cut out whole chunks, simplify sentences, try a completely new format, create a copy and start from scratch, sleep on it again… for many days until I have run out of ideas to try. And it becomes a tiny bit better each day.

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What should a great design portfolio include?

  • A great portfolio will easily stand out, be it in the format of storytelling, types of projects or visual treatment.
  • I also think great portfolios are simple yet comprehensive and can show both breadth and depth of your work.
  • Designers often miss highlighting how their design made a difference and showing successful outcomes.

 

The best portfolios I’ve seen tend to be easy to follow, catchy and almost telepathically anticipate what questions and thoughts the viewer might have and address them along the way.

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Quick question: any tips for people moving to another country in 2022? :)

Don’t be like me, and remember to buy a blanket for your first night in a new apartment in the middle of winter :)

 


 

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