design career relocation to the usa

Design Career: One Product Designer’s Story of Relocation to the USA

Product designer Denys Nevozhai tells his story of relocation to the USA and gives a bunch of handy tips to designers dreaming about Silicon Valley

I’m not often asked how I relocated. Maybe, nobody cares, or some people are too shy to ask, or they may just think it’s unreal. I’m not sure. But, despite the lack of demand, I’ve decided to share my knowledge and experience until someone else didn’t do it first.

To make my recommendations more credible, you need a short introduction. So, hi, I am Denys, a product (UX) designer from Kiev. Earlier, I managed to work in China and now I live in Cupertino, California.

I’d always been under pressure of the wish to have more than I had, with my place of life in particular. First, in a way of a miracle, I managed to move the whole family to Kiev (the capital city) from Sumy in 2000. Then, after visiting San Francisco in 2013, I set the course for the next goal.

Ways to Relocate to the US

There are many ways to go to the US and have the opportunity to work there, for example:

  • get refugee status (a convincing history of infringement, $ 5,000 for a lawyer and a lot of money before obtaining a work permit)
  • marry a US citizen (that is a whole underground industry)
  • invest $ 500,000 – $ 1,000,000 in local business
  • open your own business in the US with providing a convincing business plan, investing at least $ 50,000 and hiring at least two Americans (I can not vouch for this option, but I have friends who did it)
  • illegally work on a tourist visa (at best as a waiter)
  • win a Green Card (I know a lot of people who won, I’ve been playing unsuccessfully for 6 years already)
  • study in the United States and in a year, under certain circumstances, obtain a work permit outside the university
  • reunite with a family.

Perhaps, there are also other options.
I will describe my own path, which was obtaining a work visa.

Getting a Work Visa

Visas that give the right to work are different. H1B, O1, L1, J1. I will not compare them in detail, there is Google for it.

I will just say that H1B is a very unreliable option due to the lottery (a limited number of visas + increasing number of applicants) and a long waiting period from the moment of submitting documents for examination until obtaining a visa (6 months) if you are lucky. There is no point for companies to take risks and wait.

L1 visa also was not the best option for me because it was necessary to work for one year in the representation of the company that would agree to relocate you to their US office. This representation can be in any country where it is easier to get a work visa. For example, Facebook often hires people to the London office just to take them to the US on an L1 visa in a year. The closer and easier option was an outsourcing company like Epam.

J1 was not an option because my studies ended long before. Although I heard that there was a scheme by which companies brought employees by that visa.

By an exception method, my choice fell on the O1 visa for which I had nothing and that seemed something unattainable when I read an article about how it was received by another designer’s relocation. The O-1 visa is given to people with extraordinary abilities who need to prove themselves according to a number of criteria such as:

  • local and international awards
  • participation in conferences as a speaker
  • media materials about you and your work
  • participation in design competitions as a member of the jury
  • letters of recommendation from prominent people in the world of design.

So I decided to work on the track record and get ready for O-1 when the time comes. Meanwhile, I went to work in Shanghai.

12 + 0 Steps for a Designer on the Way to Relocation

Step 0. Get Your English Fluent

Is it worth mentioning that for hire in the US you need to have very fluent English? If you are not there yet, start working right now.

The best methods of learning the language in the order of efficiency for me are the following:

  • Work for a foreign company or English-speaking clients
  • Communicate in English if you anyone to do it with. If not, google how to find.
  • Read articles about design. Fortunately, now there are so many of them that it is physically impossible to read everything.
  • Think in English. If you do not know a word, just look at the translation and write it down.
  • Get a personal dictionary. For example, in the Abbyy Lingvo application, you can postpone words and later check them in the random order as cards to effectively memorize the content of the dictionary. I wrote down words in a notebook for a long time.
  • Listen to music, read and translate lyrics, understand and later confidently sing along
  • Watch movies in English, possibly with English subtitles, pause and translate words that are used more than 2 times.

Step 1. Leave Your Native Language Beyond Professional Goals

Forget about your public network life in Russian/Ukrainian or any other non-English language. Now everything is only in English. You can use your native language in social networks that are not available to foreign HRs, but I would advise you to consider if it’s really worth spending time on such networks.

Step 2. Do an Awesome Job

Do a good job. But if you are not the guy of lucky stars at every step, a good job won’t be enough: you’ll have to aim at an awesome job. You need to be the brightest crayon in the box.

If you are a product designer, you should act as a “user advocate” for the product you are working on. You need to be firm and solid with other teams who always try to sacrifice design in favor of their miserable goals. But we know that the major point of any product and its success is the user’s needs.

Step 3. Become a Perfectionist

You must be extremely detail-oriented, i.e. to be a perfectionist. For example, if you think that pixel perfection in iconography is a fate of geeks, I must disappoint you: high management and designers in Facebook or Google do not think so.

Make sure there are no grammar errors not only in LinkedIn and the resume but also in your designs. That is an excellent indicator of attention to detail, which can immediately send you to the basket.

Step 4. Work for US Market

Work only on projects that are oriented to the American market, even if for some reason they are paying less at the moment. If you design products with interfaces in Russian and for local companies, the chances that you will be noticed by your dream company in the Silicon Valley are quickly approaching zero.

Do not fight for those projects that bring more money – fight for those that bring more customers, future work or will get a lot of publicity in the Western media.

Step 5. Create Your Personal Brand

Develop your personal brand so that the world of design could hear about you as soon as possible.

  • Open accounts on popular platforms to display your work (Behance.net and Dribbble.com). Study the work of the most successful designers, draw the right conclusions and regularly post your best designs.
  • Start Medium and try to write something smart about design, such as case studies, some findings, tutorials and the like.
  • Start using Twitter, tweet and retweet only the stuff which will not be a shame to show to the dream company’s recruiter. It has to make them understand that design is the most part of your life. Follow the leaders of the industry, participate in discussions.
  • Accumulate professional communications, visit the design of meetups and conferences and get to know people, make friends with designers in social networks.
  • Participate in the design Slack community, such as Spec.fm and Designer Hangout.
  • Participate in design competitions, send your live designs to the websites like awwwards.com or cssdesignawards.com, there are many of them. These awards will be your trump card in the O-1 petition.
  • When you have achievements, try to become a jury member for at least a local competition.

Self-portrait dribbble shot by Denys

Step 6. Work Well on Your Portfolio

It happens that everything you have worked on for the last few years is a shame to show (as I worked for 4 years in the Paymentwall). In this case, you will have to catch up and work on something worthwhile (which is time-consuming and unreliable) or create a portfolio from scratch with unsolicited or concept projects that solve specific problems (quickly, effectively and profitably). For example, the solution of some sore problem of your own in a well-known product on the world market. It helps to quickly attract attention.

Give your work a bright title (for example Facebook App Redesign) and place it in the form of a beautifully designed graphic presentation on Behance.net, post single pictures with a description in dribbble.com and share is wherever it’s possible. When you share your design, mention the company account (or even better its design department) of the product on which you worked, for example, @facebook and @facebookdesign. Do not forget to ask your’ friends-designers to do the same.

If you claim to be a product designer, the pictures will not be enough. Write an article with a detailed description of the problem, telling how you realized that the problem exists (it is useful to conduct user research) and a step-by-step solution to the problem from research and sketches on paper to information architecture, visual designs and interactive prototypes.

If you post the design on a popular blog platform like Medium.com, it will attract more readers. The article will get even more attention if it is published in a popular design publication, for example, UX Design. To do it, you need to contact the admins of the publication and show them a draft.

If all the likes and shares collected for a week or two are only from your friends, go back to the step 2.

If your work has acquired some virality (that is, by some miracle, it spread itself over the Internet), start contacting people from companies for which you did your best and hint at an interview. Do not forget to prepare a touching cover letter in which you describe how you cannot live without this company and how much you will add to it.

More specifically on my examples.

Example 1. The first thing I did with when I left the Paymentwall was starting an account on Behance and making an unsolicited project for GoPro. At that time, I had never even used an iPhone and had no idea about its features and UX patterns, so if you look at the project now, you’ll have a lot of questions. Anyway, as soon as I saw that the project generates relatively many (compared to nothing) likes, I did everything to interest GoPro in me, namely:

  • applied for the position of a designer on the company’s website
  • wrote a letter to CEO Nicholas Woodman to all the inboxes that made sense from nicholas.woodman@gopro.com to nick@gopro.com, one of them did not return an error
  • paid $ 15 Facebook for sending a personal message to Nick, which was guaranteed to fall into his Inbox box and Facebook did not deceive me. Nick answered and said that everything is cool and I need to apply on the company’s website
  • wrote messages to HRs, designers and design managers on LinkedIn. As a result, the design director responded enthusiastically, but the talks ended with the fact that they did not sponsor work visas. Later he gave me a tour of the GoPro office in Sunnyvale, which was also nice.

Example 2. Due to my unsolicited project of the BMW Dashboard, I was noticed by the design director of Alcatel OneTouch and got a job even without a technical interview.

Example 3. Thanks to the fairly successful article Car Dashboard UI Collection on Medium, I received an offer from a company that exclusively deals with the design of tool clusters for most automotive companies. For a number of reasons, it turned out not to be competitive, so I refused.

BMW Dashboard project

Step 7. Answer All the Offers

Always answer the offers for freelancing, even if you are sure that you will not take it. You never know where this person will be tomorrow. Be interested in details, help even for free if it is an interesting project or idea you believe in. That is more valuable than money.

Step 8. Make a Beautiful Website for Yourself

If there is no time to fill out the content and show the portfolio, there is nothing shameful in one minimalistic but stylish page. By the way, here is mine dnevozhai.com

Step 9. Mind LinkedIn

Keep your LinkedIn profile fresh, write an introduction that will put you in a good light, download your fresh resume in the form of a PDF file, project images, links to the social network and website, tell what you worked on in each company and what you achieved. All the awards, freelance projects, recommendations from customers and employees (in English for sure). Here’s my my LinkedIn profile.

In addition to LinkedIn, it will not be harmful to have an account on angel.co.

Step 10. Check the Vacancies of Top Players

Don’t be afraid to pay attention to the vacancies of top companies, it will not do worse. It is more efficient to leak through the recommendation from a company employee, so try to find friends or friends of friends in the company and ask for their recommendation.

Never try to link to a portfolio or an attached PDF portfolio.

If no company answers:

  • return to step 2
  • make a try to the companies of the second tire.

If you are answered and invited for an interview, keep calm.

The first interview is always a call or video call with the design-recruiter or designer. Be ready to explain the smallest details of projects in your portfolio. Up to the question “What would you change?” Never answer “Nothing, it is totally cool!” You may also be asked to criticize some famous products on the market or explain how to make a sweet out of shit. At the second stage, you usually have to solve some specific tasks. You can read how designers are hired on Facebook here, and here.

I reached the second stage of the interview on Facebook and Google when I did not have any real product in the portfolio.

The company Palantir, known for its extra selectivity in hiring employees, after three calls invited me to its office in Palo Alto for the final interview, paying for tickets and all expenses, but I still did not get an offer.

Being in the States, I did not waste time: I got acquainted with people and got interviews in several start-ups, one of which made an offer, but later couldn’t be accepted because of the difficulties of obtaining a visa H-1B.

All the failures with employment in the US in 2014 forced me to accept an offer from China, which I now do not regret.

Step 11. Study All the Time

You have to learn all the time, try new design disciplines, new drawing styles, new tools. Used to Photoshop? Cross yourself and go to Sketch, you can always go back, but will you want?
In addition to the new skills, it becomes possible for you to write an article with a potentially successful title like “10 things I’ve learned in the transition from PS to Sketch”.

By the way, along with the search for a full-time job and freelance, I also completed the Human-Computer Interaction course from UC San Diego on Coursera. Now it seems to be renamed to Human-Centered Design and they broke the big course into many little ones. My project was in the top three of the best on a course (an achievement for O-1) and moreover, now it is shown as a work sample for new students. A trifle, but nice.

Step 12. Don’t Give Up

Be persistent. If you decided that all that is worth trying, write a step-by-step plan (preferably with indicative dates) for each step, constantly look at it and update it as you achieve your goals. This helps not to lose focus and retain motivation.

If there is an idea to write or design something that can get the virality, immediately put it on the to-do list so as not to forget.

A part of UI design for Amazfit project

So How Did I Get to America?

In 2015, I finally launched my own website, received a package of awards and wrote a case study about the creation of UX design for Alcatel smartwatches. The article was quite successful and got shared.

I made a new list of companies I was interested in and started to get into open positions.

For some reason, that time neither Google nor Facebook responded, although my experience grew many times, I had awards, cool projects, work abroad, site, Dribbble portfolio and even a resume. As well, Apple, Dropbox, Lyft and many others did not answer. I negotiated with Uber, Twitter, Box, WhatsApp, but I either rested on a visa problem, or layoffs during interviews, or I was in an unsuitable state for the interview and upset the recruiter, or the company was slow to make decisions.

I was in despair when I suddenly noticed the post of Mikhail Belstar about how he moved to New York with the help of the immigration lawyer Anna Aronova. I contacted Anna and found out that it was possible to get O-1 even without the sponsorship of the company, but I had to open my company (about $ 1000) + get a lawyer for a petition for a visa for about $ 5000.

As soon as I ventured upon this step, I was contacted @leonovco from Huami with an offer which was impossible to refuse and even more – covered all these expenses. He found me thanks to my PR activity in social networks, namely the article on UX design for Alcatel watches on Medium and presentations on Behance and Dribbble. Having accepted the offer, I talked to the lawyer given to me, expressed my worries and we transferred the case to Anna.

The preparation of documents from my side took a month, and another month was needed to prepare everything on the side of a lawyer. In accordance with the accelerated procedure (+ $ 1500), we received confirmation of the petition in a week and a half. I just had to come to Kiev to get a visa in my passport and go to sunny California.

This is how my petition for O-1 looked like

Grand Finale

Arriving in the States and having met many other visitors, I had the impression that I had passed the most difficult and winding route. It has been much easier for many other applicants. Maybe you will succeed.

Good luck!

Post Scriptum

Remember, the younger you are, the easier it is to make a decision and relocate.

Why? Because of:
• more time and energy to fulfill the insane plan described above
• better learning abilities and openness to the new
• age matters when hiring
• acquired things (an apartment, a car, etc.) will raise doubts
• aging parents are a serious factor. The earlier you leave, the earlier you will reunite
• wife + child = additional risk and financial costs in a new location.

About the author: Denys Nevozhay, product designer. He is open for communication on Twitter.

Title photo: Moose