As a current UX Designer at Apple, Bri Pizana spends her time out of the office mentoring Thinkful UX/UI design students. Bri studied graphic design in college, but felt she needed more insight in order to choose a career she’d love. So she took on some odd jobs like face painting, before landing a design role as the first and only designer at a news station. She eventually enrolled at Bloc to improve her design skills. Now, Bri mentors Thinkful design students as she creates user experience designs at Apple. Check out how her career journey led her to mentoring students, learn about her design work at a top tech company, and see her advice for anyone looking to start or enhance their design career.
What is your education background? Describe your career journey before mentoring at Thinkful.
I was actually introduced to design in high school. I had a graphic design teacher who was really supportive, so I wanted to do something in fine arts as a job. My first introduction to design was very branding centric, doing a lot of logos, and not really related to user experience design. After that I did a two year program where I got to learn about topics like industrial design, interior design, a little bit of user experience design as well. I went to Seattle Central Creative Academy because I wanted to figure out what type of design I’d be most interested in. We actually spent very little time on each of the different types of design, so I actually ended up being more confused about what I wanted to do. I found myself in a rut after graduating from that program because I still was unsure about my career. I ended up doing some odd jobs. I became a face painter and worked at a catering company. I even stocked shelves at Target for a little while.
I really liked working with kids and face painting, but I finally decided to find a role for my design career. I got my first real design role working at SGN in Seattle, which is Seattle Gay News. I was the only designer there, which I didn't know when I interviewed. It was nerve wracking because I was expecting there to be a whole team of people, but it was just me. For my first job, it was stressful. The hours were crazy and sporadic because it was a weekly newspaper. I ended up leaving that job after four months because the hours became too much. I then became a designer for a kitchen decor/ interior design company, which was a lot of fun. I got to learn a lot about how tapestries are made in different fabrics and now I have a lot of random knowledge that I didn't know about interior design.
It was an interesting and really creative role. That position is where the spark for user experience started to come in. I stayed there for a couple of years and around the second year, I was giving my parents another set of kitchen decor that I had designed. I loved how creative the job was because I got to try different things –I got to illustrate, and I got to lead. It started to bother me over time that I wanted to create designs for products with more meaning.
How did you transition into a design role with more meaning for you? When did you decide it was time to go back to school?
My boyfriend is a software engineer and he was job searching in the Bay area. He landed a job, so we decided to move from Settle to the Bay. I've always wanted to live in the area as I have a lot of family there. It was also this perfect time for me to shift jobs and figure out what exactly I wanted to do in design. I did not have a job when we moved down. I did a little bit of freelancing here and there to get money.
While I was trying to figure it out and doing research, I stumbled across Bloc. Another design school actually rejected me and I was pretty upset about it. But I found Bloc and felt lucky because Bloc was so perfect for me, especially at that time. Having a mentor was great. My mentor was very much like me. We're both very sarcastic people, which was really funny. We had great sessions and I learned so much.
You studied graphic design in college and you had a career in design, what made you search for an actual coding bootcamp instead of trying to pivot to another role?
So I did have design roles in the past, but I didn't feel like I really had the skills I needed. I still wasn't comfortable calling myself a designer because I didn't think my skills were to the level that they should be. Especially after seeing other people's portfolios, I couldn’t do that type of work. Most of my past design work was very illustration or print layout heavy. The work was very specific and focused. I had no idea how to do web design or how to design something for user needs. User experience design was something that really resonated with me because I wanted to help people.
What made you choose a design bootcamp and not a four year program or another type of certificate?
The only formal type of degree that I had thought about was Berkeley's user experience program. But in all honesty, I didn't want to go back to school or do formal learning in a classroom. In many ways, my graphic design college experience was not good. I was one of the youngest people going through the program, and at the time I was under 21. They would all go out to the bar with the professors and I would be excluded. I didn't want to be in that situation again because I also found that while I did learn skills, I don't think I learned them very well. I was constantly comparing myself to other people who had more experience. I needed a course that was more personal and more focused.
What’s an important design lesson that you learned at Bloc?
Not every opinion is going to be correct. You can never make everybody happy with a design and that's something that you have to live with. As a designer, I found that really really hard to learn because I want to help and make people's lives better. I wanted all my designs to be great for everybody, but not everything is always going to be great for everyone. It was really hard for me to learn how to prioritize certain types of people for certain types of tasks. I also learned how not to get personally attached to my designs. You have to let go of things that you care a lot about for a bigger purpose.
What new roles did your Bloc Designer Track experience help you land?
After Bloc, I interviewed like crazy at a bunch of different places. Ultimately, I ended up landing a job at Apple, my current job, where I'm a User Experience Designer. At the time I signed on with a contract role, but since then I've converted to full-time.
After I graduated Bloc, I thought about how this course made such a big impact on my life in so many different ways. It helped me with a lot of different things – my confidence and learning about myself – I learned more than just design. I learned so much going through the programs that by the end, I wanted to come back and help people do exactly what my mentor helped me do. Mentoring became my end goal.
Little did I know that Thinkful was acquiring Bloc at the time, and some changes in the company took place. A Thinkful recruiter reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be a mentor. I was so excited and could barely contain myself when she asked! I was ecstatic about the opportunity to mentor students.
Tell us about your user experience design role at Apple.
I work on our internal tools team, which is actually really interesting because it means that I get to work on a bunch of different types of projects that support all of the people at Apple. Because the products I work on are not the customer facing products, I have a pretty normal work life balance, which is really important to me.
I also get to meet a lot more Apple team members because our internal products are very intertwined with other things that we're working on across the company. All of us on the internal tools team get to meet a lot more cross-functional teams than others. We have a research team, so we don't typically do in-depth academic research, but we do work on user studies, AB testing, user flows, and wireframes. I'm actually considered a visual design specialist on our team, so I tend to jump around and help teams out with their visual design needs.
We also write up very detailed specs for our developers and support them through their development cycle. A thing to note – when I was going through Bloc’s Designer Track, I didn't think that coding was important and I was annoyed that I had to learn it. But after having to work with our devs, it has made such a huge difference to understand what they're talking about with just that little bit of knowledge from the course.
As a mentor, what should every designer understand when they're first starting out in a job?
The most important thing I share with my students is how to get ready for the real world – they have to remember that where they are is not the end, it's the beginning. It didn’t matter that I had experience before enrolling at Bloc, I still had so much to learn after getting a job.
I'm still learning, and I learn from my students all the time, which is really incredible. You can still grow and learn while you're interviewing or while you're on the job, and that is okay. You do not have to be this perfect person. You also don't have to know everything.
I think that a lot of people finish a Bloc or Thinkful course and expect to know everything. Even myself, I once thought I had to be perfect. I thought I had to understand everything about research and coding, and that I had to be this unicorn of a person or a Ninja or whatever term. But these types of people don't really exist.
Describe a Thinkful student success story that you will always remember.
The things that really stick with me are the first students that I mentored. When they got their jobs, it was huge. One of my first students went through a unique process. She was super shy, and really timid. In a way, she reminded me of myself because I was shy when I started Bloc’s program. She told me how she didn’t even want to talk to people on Slack because everybody would read her messages. In our first meeting, she thought ‘what if I spell something wrong or say something that's ridiculous’. But by the end of the program, she was posting on Slack multiple times a day and calling people with course questions. That sort of transformation within the program is incredible to me. That’s what we can give to people – we're not just helping them with their career, we're also helping them with their self-confidence and personal growth. Those are really the things I tend to take away and remember. That student in particular ended up getting an amazing job with a great company. She’s now leading a team of designers. She didn't just learn design from Thinkful, she learned so much more.
What is the career advice that aspiring designers should know?
Where you work is important. Work somewhere where you not only enjoy the people, but you're going to enjoy what you're working on because you're going to spend most of your day doing it. It's important that you enjoy the work, so you don't end up regretting it.
Apple was actually not my first choice when I was interviewing. There was another company where I just loved the people, but it ended up not working out. Apple was my second choice, but I still really love it. My team gets it. I’ve met other colleagues who wanted to work at a big company, but they're just unhappy because they don't get along with the people they work with. So I try to remind students about the importance of soft skills and work culture.
You also have to believe in yourself. These things sound so cheesy, right? But my mentor told me this same advice as I graduated: ‘You're a designer. You did this. You did the program. You were doing design the whole time.’