this portfolio is designed chronologically to showcase my life changes, achievements and experience as one seamless journey. 

How determination is the secret to UX career success

Transcript from Paul Boag


Discussion about determination

Paul: Right so, Ling.

Ling: Hi. 

Paul: Hello. Thank you for putting up with the waffle that goes at the beginning of the show.

Marcus: All of the ramble is now out of the way.

Ling: It was very entertaining.

Paul: We get serious at this point. So Ling, thank you so much for emailing me over this, it was absolutely great. I think what Marcus needs and what everybody else listening needs is if you could give us the same summary you gave me via email. Because it’s an impressive journey that you’ve been on. Tell us, tell us what happened to you and how you’ve ended up where you are.

Ling: Okay so to give a quick summary I was originally an architect from Singapore. I worked as an architect in part of an award-winning architectural design team in a big international firm for a couple of years. But I hated my job and my life back home so one day I decided to make a change. I quit my job and I bought a ticket to New York and I travelled around the US for a few months and ended up in San Francisco. It then took me about six months of relentless job hunting before I found a UX internship. I’m not sure if the listeners all you guys are aware but staying in the US is a very difficult process for any foreigner. I was at first onto tourist visas and then a training Visa with my internship company. But when that when expired I had to find another way to stay. The working visa here is a lottery based system so I wasn’t lucky enough to get that. In the end, my only solution was to marry someone which I was not going to do.

Paul: It’s a little extreme.

Ling: I had to rise to the top of my career to stay so I started to give talks, I contributed articles to major UX publications, I spoke at events like GMIC in Silicon Valley, events hosted by AIGA and I mentored students at Tradecraft, AIGA student chapter, UX Night events, VC Designers Guild and about four months ago I was finally awarded my Visa to stay based on extraordinary achievement.

Paul: What got me was that you’ve played it down more than you did in the email but there are bits at the blue my mind. For a start that UX internship was an unpaid position, correct?

Ling: Yes.

Paul: So you started off not earning any money but also you just uprooted. The first question right, let’s start from the beginning and work through it systematically. First of all, why did you decide to move away from what was obviously a very successful career in architecture? Things were going well. Why did you hate it so much? What was wrong there?

Ling: I was working for a huge architectural firm and we mainly dealt with commercial projects so I was designing shopping malls, mixed residential projects and these are by really big developers and they usually have an idea of how it’s going to look they just want you to replicate templates and work fast so that they are able to sell fast. There wasn’t large room for creativity which was fine because I was learning new things, things that you need to know to be a good architect. I couldn’t help though but miss the architecture that I really loved in school. At school I always used architecture as a tool to highlight or solve urban and social issues and that’s what I want to do in life to but I knew I wasn’t going to do that in real life.

Paul: So how long had you been spending studying to become an architect?

Ling: I did three years in a polytechnic and three more years in undergraduate school and one year in graduate school.

Paul: It sounds very similar to the UK. It’s a long process.

Ling: It’s really long.

Paul: So you went through all that and that the end you went, no? That’s quite brave to do that. To just go ‘I’ve gone through this whole process, I’m not going to do that now’.

Marcus: The question that keeps floating around in my mind is that I can understand that you didn’t like the job you had in Singapore but why change to UX? Why not try and get a job in architecture in the states or somewhere else? 

Ling: I did try but I also know that it would have the same problems. I know that the kind of architecture that I really want to work on are things that cannot be built. I could design very conceptual stuff or become a professor but I didn’t want to teach, I wanted to make a true impact, design things that would actually exist.

Paul: That’s fair enough. So when you quit the job, talk us through that process, your thought processes of doing that. Was it a spur of the moment thing? Had you plan to quit? Did you know what you are going to do when you quit? What went on there?

Ling: I stayed in that job for a little over two years and I hated it from the very beginning, the first two weeks. I remember I was crying because my supervisor was really hard on me and every other week I was thinking; I am supposed to love this. I’m supposed to love being an architect. Why am I not loving this? I don’t get it. So I kept at it because that’s what everyone in Singapore tells you to do. You keep your desk job and you really do anything outside of the conventional route. So I stayed there for over 2 years and then one day I just said, no I can’t do this anymore. If I leave my life might change for the worse but rest day is going to be the same. The same thing that I hate.

Paul: And that’s a big thing to do. To suddenly go that’s it. I presume you went in and handed in your resignation – at that point did you have a plan? Did you know you were going to go off travelling? Did you have any inclination that you might end up doing UX at that point? What is the future hold in your head?

Ling: I didn’t really have a plan. All I knew was which cities I was going to visit in the US. I planned the number of days is going to be in each city for, for the first month but that was it. Everything else I just winged.

Paul: Right, okay. What did other people think of you, family for example? Do you have family in Singapore? What did they think? Did they think you were incredibly stupid – no offence?

Ling: Yes. They did think I was incredibly stupid, particularly my family because in my culture you stay with your family until you get married. It’s very different here in the US, I don’t always like in the UK, but in the US everybody leaves when they are 18 and gives away from their parents. It’s not like Singapore. Basically you stay with your family into you get married. It’s kind of suggest that you aren’t close to family or don’t love them if you leave, so it was hard for my family to accept that I was going. Not because I didn’t love them but because I was not happy in Singapore.

Paul: Was the problem not just the job, it was also this desire to get out of Singapore and see the world a bit?

Ling: I think so yes, definitely. My mum had always said that when I was younger she thought that if I ever had the chance to leave I wouldn’t go back. So I guess she was right.

Paul: Is that because you don’t like Singapore or because there is such a big world and you want to get out there and see it?

Ling: I would say both. Since I grew up in Singapore I was tired of it and I have lived in Paris for a bit when I was 22 and I also spent a couple of months in Australia so at that time I thought America was most of his place for me to go that I’ve never been to. So I wanted to try it out.

Paul: The obvious thing would have been to go travelling for little bit, see a bit of America and then go back to Singapore and kick-start your career again. What happened that prevented that?

Ling: That’s exactly what my dad said.

Paul: Well I am a dad, so.

Ling: He said, you can just travel if you want to see the world, you don’t have to just stay there. But I guess the other reason was that I found that I have the freedom, or everyone has the freedom here to be able to experiment with career choices and there is a support system simply because everybody else is like that. Everyone is generally very accepting of new and radical ideas and people change career paths all the time and nobody raises their eyebrows. But if I were to do that in Singapore is proven, everyone is questioning you – why would you do that? You spent eight years in architectural school, aren’t you going to regret that? Such a waste of your education…

Paul: In Britain I think we are somewhere in between, aren’t we Marcus? Because that did go through my head – you spent all that time going to college. If I was your parents and had funded you through architectural school and now you’re not doing it… So we’re maybe a bit more like it than America.

Marcus: Oh I don’t know.

Paul: Well you’ve switched career for a past time, Marcus.

Marcus: Through necessity Paul. It’s a different thing. I’ve always thought America was more conservative than the UK but I guess if you are on the coast or in New York or San Francisco then they are probably more freethinking places than we are. It depends on where you are in the country. If you change career paths here, let’s say if you trained to be a doctor which would take many, many years and then decided it wasn’t for you then I think people would question it. If you had a strong enough feeling in your heart that it just wasn’t for you then I think family and friends would support you here.

Paul: Yes they would. Definitely. So, you’ve gone off travelling and we’ve now established why you are not going to be turning round to go back to Singapore.

Marcus: When you went to the states did you have any friends or family that you were going to visit?

Ling: None.

Marcus: That just scares the life out of me. See you just got a ticket to New York on your own, you walk out of JFK and it’s what am I going to do next? That is so brave.

Paul: And you are travelling by yourself as well?

Ling: Yes. 

Paul: So, you’ve done your month of travelling around and you’ve got to San Francisco. What came first? Did you fall in love with San Francisco and then go I need a job that I can do in San Francisco, oh it is all Internet start-ups here and I’m sure I can do something in that world or did you go, I want to do something in the UX therefore I will go to San Francisco?

Ling: Both. I would say both because when I was in New York I happened to have a chance to speak to someone with a UX opening and that opened my eyes to that part of the Tech world. After travelling for a month I ended up in San Francisco and it was in part that I was so sick of travelling that I stayed for a little bit and when I stayed I realised that this place was full of opportunities. Tons of them, especially in the tech world. I was lucky in that architecture was extremely broad and with that degree anyone can go into landscape architecture, interior design, industrial design, production design, and of course UX design. So to be completely honest I was open to all of the above and I believe that if production design came up before UX then I would have taken that to. But given that San Francisco was the city that I ended up in and I fell in love with it and there was an abundance of tech jobs, UX made the most sense for me to get into the time. And going back to what I said about trying to make an impact I felt it was an area that I could make the most impact in given that it was growing so rapidly.

Paul: Yes, because as this huge growth area. It touches on pretty much most of our interactions, most of the day in some way. So I can completely get that. That’s really interesting. Has that been in you – a desire to have an impact, to change the world, has that been in use since university?

Ling: Yes.

Paul: So would you describe yourself as a driven person?

Ling: Yes. 100%.

Paul: Yes I get that impression. You are also very sporty, what is it that you do? Powerlifting?

Ling: Yes.

Marcus: Wow.

Paul: Yes. She is an overachiever Marcus, I’m very out of my league in this conversation now.

Ling: You flatter me.

Paul: So you’ve had your eyes opened to little bit of UX in New York, you’ve got to San Francisco knackered and had enough of travelling and from the sounds of it you been looking for jobs the entire time.

Ling: In a way. I was travelling and keeping my eye open for something.

Paul: So it had already gone through your head that you might stay?

Ling: Yes and no. I knew I wasn’t going to go back but I didn’t know where I would be.

Paul: You have picked one of the hardest countries in the world to stay in. Did that not occur to you at any point?

Ling: It has, many, many times. But I am always up for a challenge.

Paul: I can tell. So you started looking for a job in San Francisco. That’s didn’t sound as though it happened overnight. I was under the impression that if you stood in the middle of union Square in San Francisco and said I am interested in a job in UX, people fight to get you. So what happened there? Am I delusional on that were you just really rubbish? How long did it take and what happened?

Ling: It took me maybe six months. I sent out hundreds of emails and I didn’t get a response back from most of them. I think demand is high but I also think that as a foreigner a lot of people read that and will not respond. Even in a lot of job openings it states applicant must have a valid working visa or be an American citizen. No employer wants to go through the trouble of sponsoring a Visa. Most don’t. So it did take me six months and I knew I had to start somewhere so I took a free internship. It seems like I took a step back doing that – don’t get me started on what my parents said – but I believe that I was taking a step forward at the time and finding what I really want to do. Because a new I had to start somewhere and I knew that no employer was just going to willingly sponsor my Visa without knowing what I am capable of doing first.

Paul: So you took another risk – this feels to me as a much more considered step on your part, saying that you are going to get an internship and the way you put in your email was that you were going to make yourself indispensable. How did you do that? There are a lot of people listening to this that students and they are going to be looking for their new job relatively soon. We’re coming up to the summer break and the end of their studies and they are going to start looking for a job. They might have to take an internship to get going. How do you make yourself indispensable to the point not only where they are willing to start paying for you but to jump through the hoops getting a Visa for you?

Ling: I know it sounds very cliché but you just have to believe that you are good and start taking initiatives and doing everything that you think that would be good for the company, even if it is outside your scope. The good thing about start-ups is that you wear many hats and everyone is always willing to listen to your new ideas so you can even pitch an idea for marketing offer business and everything that you think would help the company, you can feel free to say. I guess I am lucky to find a company for my internship where my cofounders are not Americans. They understood the struggle and were willing to help me. But outside of that it was also very important for me to create my own online presence and they know, like my co-workers, that I was trying really hard to find a place in the UX world and in Silicon Valley. I was writing articles and is getting the company’s name out too because I was participating outside of my comfort zone and mentoring students based on my position in the company. So all these add up to the value that I was giving to my company.

Paul: You were right when you said it was about adding value isn’t it and being seen to add value. The key thing you said there which stuck with me is that being proactive and suggesting things, even if you’ve not been asked to do them and even if they’re not actually within your remit. But to always be full of ideas and suggestions and enthusiasm. That goes so far doesn’t it?

Marcus: Don’t go too far though, it depends on how informed your ideas are. If you continually provide ideas that really aren’t of any value and you are going to become annoying. So there is a balance there. You’ve got to know what you are talking about.

Paul: I agree Marcus, but I think it’s also how you present those ideas and how precious you are over them. I’m thinking back to some employees that we have had over the time and I never resented anyone having an idea. My problem only ever came was if they wouldn’t let go of it. We said, no that’s not right for us now. And they go on and on and on and push and push and push. That’s where it gets annoying.

Ling: You need to find the right balance.

Paul: Absolutely. And the fact that you have had industry experience of working with people in a quite difficult environment of two years, you’ve probably developed a lot of those skills already.

Ling: I think yes, but I also think a lot of it comes from travel with different people. I always say that my special design superpower is travel. Because of travelling I have met so many different people and it’s crazy how different people are, how different they use things or the things that are common sense to them that isn’t common sense to me. So if you come from a place of understanding that everyone is going to perceive things differently you tend to communicate in a different way where you seem very open and earnest and open to ideas.

Marcus: That’s quite similar to my experience when I was in the band. We were all really young but we were thrust into the situation of having to do interviews on television and radio. We did it I do think we were reasonably good at it but I’ve always said that was where I had learnt how to sell. It’s same kind of thing is about how to deal with that communication where you have to stand up and say your piece about who you are whatever it is you are trying to sell. So I get that bit completely.

Paul: The other thing with the travelling as well is that it exposes you to lost different people which I think in the valley in particular is quite necessary. Because there is this very tightknit tech community there who spend so much time with one another, talking to other people from other start-ups about other UX things that you can end up becoming quite insular. You are not exposed to the ordinary everyday tech interactions that people have.

For example, it’s invaluable to me that I go out to the pub with a guy who’s a mechanic who just thinks that what I do is ridiculous and stupid.

Marcus: Not real? Yes.

Paul: Yes. But you need people like that in your life. That put it all in perspective. 

So, you had a two pronged attack as I see it here to get your Visa and to get into this UX world. On one hand it was to become indispensable to the company at which you worked but there was also a need to build a reputation that you needed to get a Visa. How does that exactly work?

Ling: So the Visa that I got was the 01 Visa and it’s meant for people with extraordinary achievements and there were several categories that you had to fulfil. Basically if you have a Nobel prize for example you don’t have to fill any other categories, you just get it. But if you don’t, you need to be the author of major publications and you need to be a member of a distinguished organisation, you need to be a mentor, you need to have awards and many things under your name.

Paul: So to think that the aim of having to get this Visa, due think that actually help to propel your career because it motivated you to do those kinds of things or are you the kind of person that would have gone ahead and done it anyway?

Ling: I think it definitely helped. I think if I had gotten the first Visa which you don’t need to do anything for except have luck, I probably wouldn’t have done as much as I have in five months. Maybe I would have done the same thing but in three years.

Paul: So there is a follow-up question now than. Now that you have your Visa, do you think you will back off a little bit from that? Because it must be knackering?

Ling: Yes it was really tiring. Right after I had got it I still had people from the publications that I’d written for asking me to continue writing for them and I had a thought that I didn’t want to do it anymore because I was so tired of hustling so hard. But I kept going. I wouldn’t be talking on the show if I hadn’t have kept going.

Paul: Oh yes, that’s a good point.

Ling: It’s tiring but I also understand that in order to grow, you need to keep doing things that make you feel uncomfortable.

Paul: Yes, absolutely. And also it’s about networking and personal brand building and all those other kind of words that we don’t like to talk about too much because it sounds a bit embarrassing, but we will have to do it to some degree don’t we really?

Ling: Yes exactly and I always feel good about myself after it.

Paul: Yes. Absolutely. So are you one of these people who constantly find something that makes you uncomfortable and then have to do it?

Ling: It seems to be the case.

Paul: So sadomasochist really then. Fair enough.

Ling: Always chasing after something.

Paul: Fair enough, that’s good. See I am terrible about that. I just stick to the things that I know well.

Marcus: That’s just a sign of your age Paul. When I was 29 I was quite driven and wanted to do all sorts of things.

Paul: Did you really?

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: I suppose I did too.

Marcus: Well you did. This is what you have to look forward to, Ling. You get tired of everything eventually.

Paul: Yes, just don’t get old. It sucks. Actually it doesn’t. I love it.

So let’s just briefly recap. Take stock of where we are at. So you quit your good job in Singapore, you set off not knowing what you wanted to do or where you were going beyond a months’ worth of travelling around America. You stumbled through the odd conversation in New York into this world of UX and realise that actually some of your skills as an architect were transferable into this new role. You got to San Francisco and you decided that you loved it, tried to settle down there and had to push hard to get a job. Nobody was interested in so you went for an unpaid internship that would then make you indispensable to that company so that you could apply for a Visa. But to apply for the Visa you also needed to become a respected and outstanding individual. Right, so easy. No problem.

Ling: Very easy.

Paul: That is quite an impressive story. The question is, there are other people out there right now who are sitting listening to this and I going, I am miserable in my job and I would love to travel the world but… Stuff. I’ve got reasons why it doesn’t happen. What would you say to them? What piece of advice would you give somebody who wants to make that change but is hesitant to do so? And don’t just say go for it. I want something tangible that can encourage them.

Ling: I’ve always had friends come to me from Singapore who say they really envy my life. I wish I could do the same. I’m just sitting here thinking, you can. I’m guessing that’s similar to saying go for it.

Paul: It is really.

Ling: If a journey is going to be anything like mine, it is going to be very frustrating and you going to feel very lonely at times. You will want to give up – I definitely thought about giving up but one thing that stopped me was understanding why I wanted to change in the first place. I knew that if I gave up I would be going back to the same old life I had. Maybe your life sucks or maybe it’s not that bad but it’s just not great, but whatever it is you want to change because for whatever reason that life is not good enough for you right now. So I kept that in mind when I moved forward and even when I got unsure about what I was doing, I was sure about why I was doing it. And that was enough to stop me from going back.

Paul: That’s really good yes, I like that idea that you got to know why you are doing what you’re doing. I look at my own situation and only a year and a bit ago I did something fairly radical didn’t I Marcus? Ling you probably don’t know that I used to run a web design agency with Marcus and another guy which I did for 13 years. About a year and a half ago I abandoned them. I said I want to set up by myself and do my own thing. Having clear in my mind why I was doing that really has helped since, to remind me that if I went back to where I was, I will wouldn’t have what I was aiming for. It’s that isn’t it that you are getting at.

Ling: So you are still adventurous and your age.

Paul: Yes perhaps I am, I still have a bit of it in me. Actually interestingly, part of the reason why I did what I did was because I wanted to travel more and my lifestyle now allows me to do that. So yes I have the wanderlust as well.

Looking back at what you’ve done, bearing in mind that it’s worked out well for you, do you think that you were brave, stupid or something else?

Ling: I definitely don’t think I was stupid. I was definitely very scared but every time I look back I gets very moved by myself over everything I have done. There were definitely a lot of mistakes along the way but I think that those mistakes contribute to the magic of the journey and it adds a deep sense of gratitude for my life here today, and I’m very grateful to have that sense of gratitude if that makes sense. It just makes every day better.

Paul: I like that. The mistakes add to the magic of the journey. What a great line. That needs to go on some inspirational poster with a picture of a kitten hanging on something.

Ling: It’s Tweet worthy. 

Paul: So talking of mistakes, what mistakes do you think you made in hindsight that maybe you would have done differently? Obviously, like you said, mistakes add to the journey but I’m interested in what you would have done differently.

Ling: I would have gotten my parents acceptance earlier. Initially I just shrugged it off and told them to stop ordering me around, let me be happy. But it took me a year and a half coming here before I realised that their acceptance means a lot to me. It’s something that was always at the back of my head as I was moving forward, that if anything would happen to them I would forever be regretful of not fixing that. So I called them and I said very nicely and full of love that it has nothing to do with my love for them but that I just need to do this and it would mean a great deal to me if they would be accepting and supportive of me. And then it was okay.

Paul: Yes, that’s lovely. I think is regrets go that’s a pretty good one to have, to put your family higher on the list of your agenda. But it’s really difficult isn’t it to get that balance? I remember, to share a similar story, when we set up Headscape right in the early days we came out of the .com bubble and we set up immediately after that and it was myself, Marcus and Chris and a guy called Leigh. We were going to set this up together and Leigh had been offered a job elsewhere and his family said, what are you thinking? Take the job elsewhere. It’s a safe and stable, you don’t know what’s going to happen with this new company, you don’t know whether it’s going to survive. And he ended up doing that – taking the safe option. Mainly to please his family because he wanted to do this thing with us and they didn’t know us, and we were an unknown entity to them. He ended up massively regretting it and actually becoming an employee of the company and he still working with Headscape today. But there is a missed opportunity there because he ended up placing his family over may be his own happiness in that situation. So it’s a difficult balance to get isn’t it?

Ling: Definitely. You just have to communicate that you love them and that is nothing to do with them.

Paul: Absolutely. Personally I will be very excited when my boy decides to bog off and I can go on holiday and do what I want, when I want without having to worry about him. He’s only 13.

Marcus: That’s a long way off Paul.

Paul: I’ve got ages yet haven’t I.

So, one last question before we wrap up. What do you think is the secret of your success for these kinds of big changes? Is it your determination? Is it your devil may care attitude? What has been the real thing that you’ve done really well here?

Ling: My favourite word in the English dictionary is relentless. I think is a beautiful word. If you believe in something I think you should go after it relentlessly. I think that I also believe in the idea that you don’t have to be the person that you were yesterday and you can recreate yourself at any time you want, so I think my secret is that I think about the person that I want to be and I choose to become that person. You can think about it in the very general sense but I find that an easier way to break it down would be to start with little questions for yourself whenever an opportunity arises. Things like, do I want to be accomplished enough to speak at a mobile conference? If the answer is yes, then I become that person who is accomplished enough to speak. Like when you said that tweet out – who wants to talk and my show? I asked myself do I want to be the person who is good enough to be a guest on your show?

Paul: I think that is just a brilliant way to end this discussion. The idea being relentless that you can become the person that you want to be. It does sound a bit cliché. But it is so true. It is so true and so encouraging. That was just fantastic. Absolutely brilliant thank you Ling.

Ling: My pleasure. 

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