Instructor Stories: Faz Besharatian Inspires Students to Work as a Team in UXDI

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January 23, 2015_IMG_9712

Faz (top row second from the left) with his UXDI students at General Assembly.

After several years designing for nonprofits and companies, Faz decided to make a go of freelancing full-time. After almost three years of choosing his own projects and clients, Faz committed to teaching the first UXDI course at General Assembly DC. He’s taught almost every UXDI cohort since.

Follow Faz on Twitter @faz

What were you doing before you came to teach at GA?

Before GA I was [design] consulting. Being independent allowed me to work on a few startups in addition to traditional contracts. This was after years of being a corporate guy, running design teams and building products for the likes of AARP and AOL..

Why did you decide to start freelancing full-time?

Partly for the freedom to help with startups and partly out of boredom with corporate culture. I actually had tried doing freelance work early on in my career. It turns out that you actually need a good network to make that happen. Who knew!

The first time around, I didn’t have enough work and it was simply not fulfilling. But after years of building websites, applications and working various team structures, both the experience and the access to the network allowed me to try being independent again. This time, it was much more about consulting and choosing the projects rather than grabbing anything that comes my way.

Running your own business is not easy and not for everyone. If a designer lacks the control, on top of having to do the business development necessary to keep it running, then the benefits of a full-time position will be far greater. Most people tend to seek the easier path from the business perspective and focus on what they love. For me, the love is for the new challenge as much as the design work which I still love very much.

Considering your background with both nonprofits and tech companies, how should designers adjust their expectations and work habits in these different environments?

In both cases, size has a lot do with it. In my experience, the larger companies in any sector start to act in similar fashion. The bureaucracies and heavy-handed processes tend to be very similar. But when they’re smaller, it’s a little easier to see the difference between a mission-driven organization versus a company developing specific products.

A nonprofit is mission-driven whereas a tech company is going to be focused on engineering. The same type of work in a nonprofit will have to be framed around specific goals and how those goals relate to the mission. The design and development for the nonprofit are only a means to an end.

A designer may find themselves having to focus on the latest techniques or trends in the industry when working in tech. But that same designer will find themselves becoming a subject area expert working in that non-profit. It’s all about who you’re working with and knowing what makes them tick, especially if you’re moving from one industry to another. Just like our focus on the users’ motivations, it helps to know what motivates our colleagues. It helps to know the base line knowledge you need when you’re in heated discussions. In both environments, you need to be ready to hang with the experts and do it quickly.

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Faz encourages his students to lean on each other and “work as a pack” to network within the UX industry.

Students have support from the Outcomes team after they graduate, but I’m sure they still ask you questions about career options. What advice do you offer them about the job search?

First, they should work as a pack. The rest of the class is their immediate network. They should start their Linkedin activities by connecting with each other. They should reach out to folks as soon as they meet them in any context and make those connections more lasting. When we have guest speakers, they’re encouraged to follow them on Twitter, and ask for connections with them in whatever network these experts are spending their time on. We tell them about meetups and interesting activities around town.

There is always so much going on and some of it is a bit counter intuitive, like going to professional events to meet collaborators as opposed to always looking at a design centric events. Going to the events in small groups help tremendously when you’re new and unsure of the subject. Little by little the network grows. By the time the course is over, the students have made a lot of connections and hopefully these habits last beyond the 10 weeks. Probably the strongest advice for students in career transition is to make use of their existing network. People often underestimate what they already have when they’re making a career change. Any previous life experience may be useful when networking. The objective for the new folks should be to stick their flag somewhere and start making noise. With each step they can build more connections leading to potential job opportunities.

Not everyone reading this can just call you for advice. What are some resources they should look at as they consider their career options?

Probably a good place to start are free sources. Go with http://uxmastery.com/how-to-get-started-in-ux-design/. If you have not seen that yet, it should be a great intro into the field.

There are tons of great UX blogs to get you started. I would suggest also following a few well-established practitioners and see what they’re talking about. It’s a great way to follow the trends and understand where the market is going. Here is my list from twitter.

Obviously online learning is a great option. Here are a few recommendations:
https://generalassemb.ly/education?where=online
http://teamtreehouse.com/library/topic:learn-design
http://www.lynda.com/search?q=ux
https://www.udemy.com/courses/search/?ref=home&q=ux

How do you prepare for classes?

Now that I’ve done a few, the most important starting point is a break to reset everything. A clear break between these immersive courses is an absolute necessity. The general idea is for us begin about two weeks before day 1 and go over the material and make necessary updates. Coordination with other instructors in other cities is ongoing, but this is the time to make big adjustments that might be talked about among us. During these prep days, we assign lessons for instructors and make the schedule. We also plan out activities in coordination with the rest of the program from collaboration with developers to studio visits and guest speakers.  This is a team effort so the coordination is key before the first day of the class.

What are some unexpected challenges you’ve had as an instructor?

Managing group dynamics is always a challenge. But given the intensity of program like this, it’s hard to predict what type of concerns may come up, so it’s been a constant learning experience when dealing with team issues or group coaching situations. It’s extremely rewarding, but also a challenge at times.

What’s the ratio of entrepreneurs (people with ideas) to career-changers in your courses? How does being in DC influence what they’re looking for?

The startup & tech scene in DC is very robust and quite possibly underestimated. From our class, I would estimate the entrepreneurs to be the minority though. I can think of several products/companies from our alumni. But career changers in the immersive design course tend to be in this transition for professional development reasons. They’re generally looking for a change in direction and they find user experience design to be interesting as a practice, not as a method to launch their new venture. It’s my impression that people with ideas are generally either already working on something or would rather take part time courses to round out their skill sets, dedicating more of their time to their passion project. It seems this course is a better fit for those are more committed to the practice of design vs. other paths more suited for typical entrepreneurs.

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Faz is happy to give his students career advice long after the course ends.

It’s not surprising that many graduates still use you as a resource. How do you keep in touch with the growing number of alums?

With a great deal of pain! Slack is really helpful though. Each cohort has their own and they keep their connections beyond the course. It’s really hard to keep up with everyone, but that’s been a helpful way to at least address questions. After a few of these classes, it’s really nice to see the 1st class surfacing again and wanting to talk about their progress or their next job even. Like any other social group environment, not everyone stays as involved and it’s hard to keep up with everyone. GA as whole does a great job to maintain a sense of community. Seeing alumni at events, for example, is a good way to maintain some of that. Anything I can do to minimize emails 🙂

What advice do you have for people considering teaching at GA?

If you like a fast-paced environment and being surrounded by knowledge-hungry students who don’t know when to quit, this is the right place for you. To instruct the immersive courses you need to have a good command of the subject, know how to manage a crowd and be energetic. So your caffeine addiction may be useful here. Secretly wishing to be a stand-up comedian probably wouldn’t hurt either; something I’m considering more each day.

Who’s your all-time favorite teacher and why?

In high school, I had a shop teacher who helped us assemble electronic kits and we even built a hovercraft one year. So many teachers have made an impression on me, so it’s hard to pick one. But this teacher’s enthusiasm, combined with his loose style, let a few of us geek out and learn what we wanted to rather than what we had to to pass stupid tests. It helped nurture my curiosity and shape who I am today. I’m very thankful for that.

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