New Brand Vision, VisualDNA, ShipServ, Badoo, Voxer, LinkedIn. Spisska Nova Ves, Zilina, London, Palo Alto, Silicon Valley. The list is long, the experience invaluable. What is behind all those names and places, how did he get to work for LinkedIn, what struggle did he have to overcome, and how did he learn to sell himself? Let’s uncover the story of Michal Vasko, the Senior User Experience Designer at LinkedIn.
You are currently the Senior UX Designer at one of the most significant startups and social media platforms in the world, LinkedIn. Can we say you are living your dream?
Well, I just woke up an hour ago, so I am probably still dreaming:)
Definitely, there are many more things I would like to take and challenge myself with. To be honest, I, personally, don´t feel like I have achieved as much in my life yet. I have always wanted to do something that I like and to build products for people on a larger scale–products that can influence and improve lives of the others, and that is what I am probably doing right now.
I’m in the United States thanks to the opportunity that came along based on my previous work, and I accepted a new challenge to move here to become a better designer and person. I’m always eager to learn more here, at LinkedIn, as well as in the future with Microsoft. I feel like there is always a lot to learn. Technology is moving forward extremely fast, and if you are stuck in one place for too long, you don’t learn new stuff, and you won’t feel challenged. If that happens, my advice is just to quit that day and move on. Figure out a new challenge, new sh*t you want to learn. Otherwise you are not going to be happy for too long.
Don´t you have a specific plan or a goal for the future?
Plan is probably a tough word but my simple model is that you can’t be stuck in one place forever. So the plan is just to carry on; to enjoy and learn new things until the point where you are being challenged and learning new stuff. If it stops at a specific point, you probably need to go figure out your new challenge. I am super challenged here, at LinkedIn, and happy with my work. We honestly have an amazing culture and I really like the people I know and work with on a daily basis. These people are not just my co-workers, they are my close friends, and I like to spend time with them outside of work as well.
“10 000 people, and I’m the only Slovak.”
What is the culture at LinkedIn like?
Amazing people. Not just in terms of talent, but, especially, in terms of culture. There is a lot of diversity, people come from every corner of the world, everyone brings something specific, everyone has something unique, and people treat others with dignity and respect. I have Chinese, Russian-Israeli, Mexican, Indian, Brazilian and Americans on the team and these guys are my second family! LinkedIn really takes care of our well-being. It is all the small things that you generally need help with. For example, there is the 4th of July, the Independence day, and the entire company is shut down for the entire week. We are pushed to go home to spend time with family and friends.
Do you also have any Slovak co-workers?
Sadly, there are no Slovaks or Czechs in the company at all.
Except for you…
Yeah, 10 000 people–I literally went through several databases we have– and I haven’t managed to find anyone. I am the only one representing Central Europe and Slovakia specifically. But I would be more than happy if this number got bigger as we do have amazing people back home. Designers, developers, marketers, or idea makers. There are a lot of opportunities at LinkedIn, and I will be more than happy to have someone from our little big country around.
Do you currently have an open position in your team?
We always have an open position for great people! There is always plenty of exciting work and challenges to be handled. LinkedIn is growing fast and getting more talent is an essential part of it.
“The hiring process can be very exhausting but very well balanced as well.”
What did the hiring process for your LinkedIn position look like?
It is going to sound cliché but LinkedIn approached me via LinkedIn:) The thing is that if you are here, in Silicon Valley, you get approached from quite a few companies on regular basis due to high demand. I think the first time LinkedIn approached me was probably early 2015. At that time, I was finishing some projects with Voxer so I was not ready. The timing was not right. I wanted to ship the projects first.
They probably came back.
Three or four months later, they approached me again, and at that time I had already launched the projects I wanted to ship. I was also talking to some other companies about new challenges at that point as well.
What are the steps of the hiring process?
The first one is that they approach you with an opportunity, and then they figure out what you are up to, what projects did you work on, what your experience is. Then they ask you if there is any interest from your side. If you are interested, they offer you to set up a couple of interviews. The first one is simple phone screening with usually two or three 45-mins calls with some of the Senior Designers or Design Managers. Usually you go through your portfolio, projects you have done, problems you have tried to solve, what was unique about the solutions, and how it is better than the other products. Basically, you try to explain your design thinking and back up your design/product decisions.
If they are happy with what they heard, they offer you a design exercise. That is more or less a standard in Silicon Valley. You have a certain time, usually 7 days, to come up with a design solution to a real problem the company or a product is facing. Based on your design exercise, they decide whether they invite you to an onsite interview, which lasts whole day.
What does that look like?
It contains one hour presentation about yourself, basically a 5min intro–who you are, where you come from, what did you do, you can be creative as much as you like. Then, another 25 or 30 minutes you’ll present your design exercise in front of 30–35 designers where you explain why did you come up with such a design solution or proposal. They usually ask questions and challenge decisions you made. It’s not just about the design, it’s about how you can sell yourself up, how you can communicate and back your decisions, whether you can step back and think holistically about an entire problem rather than just about a design process that you are trying to solve. Their real job is to push you out of your comfort zone, so they see how fast and flexible you can tackle the problem and be ready to just show how you think and adapt. The rest of the hour is your presentation of your most recent projects. At this point, the real fun starts. You have scheduled individual, five-six 45-mins one-on-one interviews with Senior Designers or Design Managers/Directors.
That can be quite exhausting.
It is not an easy day. I think it can be very exhausting but it is very well balanced and you get to meet a lot of inspiring creative people like you. There is a lot of opportunity, but at the same time it is not automatic or an easy thing to get hired. There are a lot of people who are trying to get hired, and it is tough. I feel that the process is fair and really tests you out whether you are ready to support the team and to deliver the job. There’s always one question you really need to answer as a hiring person: “Would I like that person to join my team and work with me?” If you know the answer at this point, it’s pretty straightforward.
Do you remember the moment when you got the call or the e-mail that you got accepted?
I didn´t get a call, neither an e-mail.
Did you get a LinkedIn message?
Neither that. It happened slightly different in my case. I believe my interview went really well, and I met some great people such as design director and some of the senior designers. I felt like these are the people I really wanted to work with and learn from. I have always been fan of LinkedIn product.
To be honest, at that point I had already offers from other places, but LinkedIn and the people I had interviews with, were a great combo for me. At the end of the day, I kind of knew things went well, and they wanted to move forward. So I got the offer.
“I went to the school just to sign up and check things out.”
Can we get back to the past of yours? When did your story as a designer start? What was the path from Slovakia to Silicon Valley?
The journey from Spisska Nova Ves to Silicon Valley:) Somehow the path was very natural, to be honest. I never really studied design, I’m one of those self-taught designers. Sketching and drawing carried me throughout my whole childhood. The passion has evolved into digital, and I have to admit I was fortunate enough that my parents bought me and my sister a computer in our early age.
I didn’t think I could make design for living until the point when I started at the university in Zilina with my multimedia studies. It was exactly something I didn´t want to do:) The only thing that was related to the multimedia technologies was the title. I got frustrated and applied for a university in London.
You just left?
I told my parents: “Ok I am gonna go to London and study the stuff I really want to study.” They hesitated and were skeptical at first. However, I’m grateful that they have supported me all the way during my life, and even at this time they trusted me and gave me a green light to follow my dreams.
What happened in London?
When I moved to London, it was April, and the university didn´t start until September, so I was like “What I am gonna do?”. I had some savings as I already worked as a freelancer during high school, but for fun I went to the Gumtree website, an advertising portal in the UK, and found a few ads on junior positions. I literally sent 2 e-mails with my portfolio. Within a couple of days, I got a job as Junior Designer in a small studio.
Did you eventually go to the university?
I went there just to sign up and check things out, but I actually never really went on a full time study.
“Every failure brings you closer to the success.”
What were the most difficult obstacles you had to overcome until today?
Moving from London to the States from the immigration perspective. I had to collect a lot of proof, original papers and documents about my work, my history and all the design achievements I’d gained in the past. A lot of collaboration had to be done by myself and immigration lawyers. I am glad that it’s all behind me and I can learn, grow and spread my knowledge further.
Nevertheless, I am a positive person; I hardly take things too seriously or see things too negative. I’m sure you all know it but I really think it’s true: every failure brings you closer to the success.
When I first interviewed you, it was, I think in April 2014, you had just moved to Silicon Valley and just got introduced to a new country and new environment. How do you like it now, two and half years afterwards?
I am definitely more established. I had been here before for holidays, so I knew what the environment was about but I had never fully experienced the working environment and the culture. After 2,5 years, I can easily say that I am happy that I had made the decision to leave London and continue my career here.
Things are logically much, much better than in the beginning. My social network has become much bigger, and I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of cool people from the industry, as well as outside of the industry; people who design products that we use on a daily basis such as Uber, Messenger, Amazon, Instagram, Google Maps, Twitter, etc.
Recently I attended at a design conference in San Francisco, and there was a guy who designs dashboards for Teslas or a guy who helped Steve Jobs to launch the first actual Apple stores in Japan. And that’s great–the chance to meet the top class people and get inspired by them.
What did surprise you the most when you first came to the Silicon Valley?
The amount of opportunity, knowledge as well as work demand. I´m not saying that Europe wasn´t demanding, it definitely was, but here it’s slightly different. There are a lot of great opportunities here and lucky people get to work in great places, with talented people on an amazing product. But at the same time, once you get to that place and work on these products you want to succeed and be the best. That can be a hard work. You have all the benefits from your company, some even hard to imagine, but you work hard to succeed. Now, when I think about it from today’s perspective, it’s not as surprising. I was ready and willing to do accept a new challenge.
“Even if someone makes much more money than you, it doesn´t make him a richer person.”
I know that you don’t really have a real experience with the Slovak startup scene, but I think you follow it on some level.
I do follow it and try to be in the picture; some of the people I have known for years, but only digitally. I’ve finally met quite a few of them in person during the recent visit of our president Mr. Andrej Kiska. It was great to meet all the like-minded people from back home.
If you compare our environment with the one in London or Silicon Valley, what comes to your mind? Where do you see some of our advantages and what are our weaknesses?
I´ll start with the advantages–it´s the human power and the potential that we have in the country. The average quality of our people is very high. Slovaks are very ambitious and creative. We are able to build new products whenever and wherever we go, we are very creative and flexible people.
On the other hand, one thing we can learn and improve on, which isn’t common or in our nature, is that we are not ready to sell ourselves, we don’t have the ability to go and present ourselves in the best possible way. Part of it is that we are very humble, which is great to be. However, in the 21st century you need also to go out there and compete with the rest of the world talent and that’s not easy. In many cases you can be (and most probably are) better then many others, but if you´re not able to say it and present yourself in that light, it´s not going to help you.
Even if I combine Slovaks and Czechs, we are still a very tiny market. I recently met quite a few people from “CzechoSlovakia” region that were like: “We really need to go abroad because we want to get more experience. We already know each other, everyone worked on everything here, and everyone worked for everyone. We need to get out and explore how things are done in different parts of the world in order to grow.”
You mentioned that we are too humble to be able to sell ourselves. You, personally, have been in that stage–that you were too humble to sell yourself? And if so, how did you overcome that?
I was and I think still am, to be honest. As I mentioned before, there’s still much more to achieve in my life and I’m excited about it. But at the same time, I´m aware of the fact that probably not everyone has spent 10 years abroad working on such products as I was fortunate to work on.
How have I become able to sell myself? It´s just a learning curve, experience by experience–by going out and presenting in front of people and talking to people who are using your products. By coming up with the ideas and solutions that are different and better.
You need to know your price, but not in terms of money. Obviously, you need to get a competitive salary and cover your needs, but it´s more about the price you want to get back in terms of skills, experience and knowledge. I would call it an experience per job metrics. Everyone should have some sort of expectations of what they want from their life and job. We should not settle for less.
Even if someone makes much more money than you, it doesn´t make him a richer person. The biggest value you can get is experience and knowledge. Nobody can steal that from you! If you learn more, if you work with people you like and if you work on products you like, that´s the real price you won’t get with any salary.
What project, startup or service does pop up in your head when I say Slovak startup scene?
Lately I would say that the guys from Pixel Federation as I know them well. They are doing great, and I know they were present here, earlier this year, at a game conference in San Francisco. I also recently read about Benjamin Button as well as AeroMobil, and I met the guys working on the cool technology with the drilling pipes but I forgot the name right now.
That’s right. These guys are doing an amazing job!
“All the knowledge is out there, it’s up to you to go grab it and make it happen.”
My favorite question to the designers that I interview: if you had only one year to become the world class designer, what would you do? How would you narrow down the skills, techniques, tools, books to the most crucial core?
One year, wow!
Actually, in one year, technically speaking, is not that difficult to become a good designer. What you cannot gain in that period, is the necessary experience and the time when you just talk to people and try to come up with solutions. So my advice would be either to create a brand new idea or to define an existing problem.
I’d try to define what the problem is and how the thing can be done better, what tools I have, what obstructions are there, how are people using that product or service, how much time can I spend on the solution, etc.
I mean, you can become a designer the moment you have an idea and you grab a pencil and paper. Simply sketch or write your idea and come up with a solution. When you are able to transcribe or explain your idea on a paper, that is the point where you are becoming a solution-maker. At some point you’ll need to start using software such as Sketch or Photoshop. I would go online and download templates or guidelines to see how things are done and deconstruct them first to see how do they work. You want to design an app? I would go to Apple Guidelines to understand what are the requirements and what rules I need to follow in order to design a real application. Learn about sizes of the fonts, resolutions, interactions, etc.
All the knowledge is out there, it’s up to you to go grab it and make it happen. I would really encourage everyone, who wants to become a designer and to solve problems and create new things which people will like to use, to grab a paper and a pencil right now and think of something for 5 minutes to see what they would change and how. Feel free to tweet me at @michalvasko or message me at LinkedIn your ideas:)
Photos: Michal Vasko