Bridging the Gap: Taking Your Skills from Volunteering into Full-Time Work

Photo by Startup Stock Photos

Anqi Xiao is currently a Product Designer for security platforms at Upwork in Sunnyvale, CA. She has experience in creating responsive websites, building design systems, and qualitative and quantitative user research.

We had the great pleasure of interviewing her and we talked about her skill-building experience while volunteering with GiveShop, a fast-growing, budding startup here in the Silicon Valley.

She offers stellar advice for aspiring designers and those who are looking to make a career transition. She shares her success story of how skills gained from volunteer work helped her land her dream job.

Hi Anqi! It’s so exciting to chat with you and for our audience to hear your story. You actually have a very interesting background and an array of experience in Industrial Design, Graphic Design, and UX/UI Design. Tell us more about your background and how you got started in Product Design.

My background is in Industrial Design. While studying, I started noticing the trends in User Experience and User Interface design (UX/UI). What was really interesting to me about UX/UI design were the quick, iterative cycles. There was always the opportunity to learn, iterate, and make something better. But with Industrial Design, once you manufacture it, you don’t have much opportunity to change or improve it.

After college, I decided that I wanted to learn more about UX/UI design. So after finishing my Masters from the Rhode Island School of Design, I moved out to Los Angeles and started doing some design work there. I wanted to learn more about it systematically, so I moved up to the Bay Area to study and got my UX/UI Design Certificate from UC Berkeley Extension.

How did you find out about GiveShop?

While looking for jobs in the Bay Area, I joined a UX community. I started going to UX community meetups and met some other UX designers.

And through my friend, Jacob, I met Harry, CEO & Co-Founder of GiveShop. One day, they were having a meeting at Coffee & More and I happened to be sitting next to them working. They were looking at some designs and Jacob asked me what I thought. I shared my feedback and what I learned from my previous experience working with other companies. After that, we just continued the conversation and I got to know a little bit more about GiveShop and its mission.

What led you to volunteer with the organization?

What was really interesting to me is the mission of GiveShop — it’s driven out of compassion, and not money-driven. GiveShop genuinely wants to rally people up to volunteer for social good. I thought that was really cool. And because I care about climate, human rights, and education, the causes that GiveShop supports really resonated with me.

I attended a couple of team meetings, and what ultimately got me to volunteer with the organization was the people. I met some great people there. The core team is so committed and dedicated. They’ve created a culture that is very open-minded — people are open to listening, and you’re always encouraged to learn more. Having an atmosphere where you’re encouraged to learn while doing, where it’s OK to fail, and supported because we’re all learning together — that kind of environment just really vibes with me. And I’ve learned so much from my time volunteering there.

What was your role at GiveShop?

I started as a System Designer on the team. I was interested in this area, but didn’t have much experience. But Harry gave me the opportunity to learn. I attended a 3-day conference, read through many books and blogs on the topic, and chatted with some of my more senior designer friends. With Harry’s trust and my own initiative to learn, I was able to quickly gain understanding and figure out how to do it. This allowed me to learn, build the foundation, iterate, and improve on the design. I went through each page and identified risks/challenges from the user’s perspective and shared the findings with the team in order to make the necessary design iterations. Then I transitioned into UX/UI Design, to work more closely with the UX Research team to identify user problems and find solutions.

What were some of the valuable skills you gained from this experience? What were some of the things you’ve learned?

I got more exposure to using Figma. I watched a lot of YouTube videos and got hands-on experience working in the tool.

In the past, I would sometimes get frustrated working with others or had to deal with delays. I learned a lot about teamwork from my mentor, Harry. I learned how to be more communicative. So instead of being frustrated and just suppressing my emotions, I learned to analyze the situation, be more communicative, and learned to work with the team to solve problems together. In the end, they were all great lessons learned and now I have stories and material to share in my job interviews.

What piece of work are you most proud of? What was your favorite project at GiveShop?

There are two achievements I’m particularly fond of from my time at GiveShop.

The first was in my systems design work. I took the initiative to learn, allowed myself to take risks, and put something together that I’m proud of. It’s not perfect, but I know that I grew a lot from this experience.

The second was when I worked with the UX Research team in Miro. We had a remote team workshop to identify problems to solve, priorities, and worked together as a team to quickly come up with solutions.

What is the most challenging in terms of transitioning to a full-time job?

I think the most challenging for me was the language barrier. English is my second language, so when I first started, I sometimes had trouble catching everything from the meetings. There were a lot of acronyms and jargon, so I ended up having to record the meetings so that I can review the information afterwards.

It was also difficult for me to communicate — being new to the team and having to work remotely. I’m a visual thinker, so oftentimes, I translated my thoughts into visuals to help me understand better. I created charts and design mocks and allowed my visual materials to communicate the message. It also saves me a lot of explanation.

How did the skills you gained from your experience help you land your full-time job?

I learned soft skills — like teamwork — and how to turn my frustration to communication. I’ve also developed my technical skills. I got hands-on experience working in Figma, which has been super helpful. And now I have all these stories of my personal growth through this volunteering experience that I can share in my job interviews.

What advice would you have for others who are looking to build their skills through volunteering?

Volunteering is so important these days, especially in the tech industry. The industry is so competitive and tech companies hire only experienced designers or developers. And volunteering has become such a valuable experience. It allows you to put into practice what you learn from books into the real world. Also, design and coding is not theoretical, it’s practical; so hands-on experience and working with real projects is super important. And through volunteering and working on projects, you’re able to gain the real-life experience that these companies are looking for.

My advice for new grads or someone who is transitioning their career:

- Take volunteering seriously — The more you put in, the more you’ll learn and gain from it.

- Keep learning and taking challenges, and don’t be afraid to fail. — Apply what you learn to your work and keep iterating. For me, I know that whatever I learn, I will be able to apply to the project and make an impact.

- Don’t be afraid to ask for mentors/advisors. — If you enjoy working with someone and feel like you’re learning a lot from them, don’t be afraid to ask them to be your mentor.

- Be sincere. Be kind. Be respectful.

Any other advice you’d like to share with prospective readers who might be reading your article and want to learn from your experience?

I can recommend some good books that I’ve found useful.

Articulating Design Decisions: Communicate with Stakeholders, Keep Your Sanity, and Deliver the Best User Experience (2nd Edition) by Tom Greever

How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life Hardcover (June 1, 2009) by John C. Maxwell

Design Systems Handbook by Suarez, Anne, Sylor-Miller, Mounter, and Stanfield

I read these in my spare time. There’s a lot of wisdom that I found, that I was able to apply directly to my work. Those books helped me through situations where I felt stuck.

Other Lessons Learned:

In a start-up, you get to wear more hats and you learn a lot of different things. Working remotely at a start-up (through the COVID-19 pandemic) with little in-person interaction was a little bit more challenging. Rather than just communicating with one primary person, I think I should have made more effort to reach out to more people.

At a bigger company, projects are more in-depth and the work is more focused. Collaboration skills are very important (both for startups and big companies), but especially now with remote work. It’s important to develop relationships if you want to influence and set/work on priorities.

We are a budding startup in Silicon Valley aiming to simplify the act of giving. Our goal is to mobilize more people to get involved with meaningful causes.