Academy Xi Blog

Student Spotlight: Vanessa McDonald

By Academy Xi

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Vanessa McDonald

From yoga teacher to professional UX Designer and Academy Xi mentor, Vanessa’s story proves sky’s the limit when it comes to switching careers.

Seeking a fresh start in her career, Vanessa enrolled in the UX UI Design: Transform course. As well as landing an exciting new role, Vanessa’s back with Academy Xi and mentoring the next generation of UX Designers.

What were you up to before you started studying with Academy Xi?

Before the course, I’d been a yoga teacher for about seven years. I decided I wanted a change of scenery, so I bought a van, packed all my stuff and moved to Queensland. 

In Queensland it’s ultra competitive to find a good studio space and fill a decent amount of yoga classes, so you really have to hustle. I knew it would only be a few years of doing 10-15 classes a week before I burned out. I wanted to find a new profession, but had never been to university and didn’t have a clear sense of direction career-wise, so I was searching around for ideas. 

A friend of mine completed the Academy Xi course and became a UX designer. I called him one day and asked ‘what do you actually do?’. He talked me through his role from end-to-end. Honestly, it sounded like every bit of enjoyable work I’d done in the last ten years squashed into one job. 

I knew I wanted a career that would allow me to make a positive impact. What I love about UX is you can do something as simple as change a button on a screen and that can influence countless people to make a choice that is more sustainable, healthier and better for themselves and the lives of others. 

I didn’t want my next move to be a quick fix, so I took a bit of time to make sure I was completely committed to launching a career in UX. After a little while I was still certain it was the right career and decided to take a course. 

My friend who’d studied the Academy Xi course is the kind of person to do research before he buys a toothbrush! I knew he would have carefully weighed up all the options. Because he’d done his research and spoke so highly of Academy Xi, I decided to enrol. 

What were your highlights of the course?

The biggest highlight for me was completing the real client projects. They were great additions to my portfolio and allowed to show employers that I had hands-on experience. 

Anybody could look at my portfolio and see that I could interpret a real brief, work with actual clients and present my ideas, rather than just working on hypothetical projects.  

As well as the two client projects, I also had the chance to develop my own brief. It was really satisfying to work on a project that I was passionate about which was also for a real client. By the end of the course, I had three client-facing UX projects, which was just an amazing accomplishment that put me in a really strong position when it came to applying for roles in the industry.  

What were your favourite projects that you worked on?

For the personal project I chose an online yoga company I’d been working for. It was the first project and definitely the hardest. I was a blank canvas with UX and was essentially learning the process by performing it. It was challenging, but a valuable learning curve. By the end of the first project I had pieced together the whole process of UX from end-to-end. I presented my proposal to the CEO and she was really impressed. She said that if she hadn’t known I was a student, she would have assumed that I’d been working in UX for years. 

The first client project was for a start-up called Linkmate. Anybody dealing with emotional challenges can connect with other people who’ve had similar experiences on Linkmate. It’s a way to get a bit of interaction and support when you need it most.  

The brief for Linkmate involved creating their app. Luckily, they’d already carried out their own research and validated a design, so our job was to step in and build it. There were about 11 designers working on the brief and everyone had their own ideas and input, which started to slow the project down. 

I realised that if we were going to deliver the app on time, someone would have to step up and lead the project. It ended up being me and another guy who took the reins. We figured out what needed doing and who would do it, which kept everyone shuffling along. 

We presented the finished app to the client and he was over the moon. He actually shed a few tears – the company was very close to his heart, so seeing it brought to life in an app was an emotional experience for him. 

How did you get on with your mentor? 

My mentor was Hayden Peters and he was fantastic. Whenever the teams hit a bit of a roadblock, he would step in and help everyone get things back on track. Sometimes the client projects got pretty tricky, so it was reassuring to have Hayden’s presence.   

It helped that Hayden and I actually have a similar energy. We’re both very enthusiastic and love getting other people involved. Near the end of the course I could tell that everyone was running out of steam. Our productivity had dropped and there was still loads of work to be done with the last project. We had a stand up meeting and I told everyone that if they just gave it one last push and put in an extra 10% effort then we would absolutely smash it. 

By the end of that day everybody had gotten so much done. I had a chat with Hayden later on and he’d noticed the team was moving and shaking again. I told him I’d spoken to everyone and given them a bit of a morale boost. He was guiding the whole cohort, but was also helping me guide the teams from within.     

Can you tell us about your mentoring experience with Academy Xi?

I began mentoring Academy Xi students a few months ago. Hayden reached out and said that a few students needed some extra help. I was so honoured and amazed that of all the people Hayden has met and taught, nearly a year later he remembered me and recommended me for working with students. What a compliment! 

I’m really enjoying my mentor role. I see a lot of myself in these students when they jump on our zoom calls, all frazzled and confused. I hear them out, remind them that everything is going to be okay and always make sure they understand the “why” behind the process, rather than just telling them what to do. 

My experience as a yoga teacher for all those years has definitely helped me in this role. I’m able to hold space and ensure psychological safety – making sure students understand that the only dumb questions are the ones that you don’t ask. 

How did you land your role with Go1?

It happened in a bit of a funny way actually. A recruiter reached out to me and we got on a phone call. We spoke about all things beach and surfing and got along really well. At the end of the call, he told me that although he didn’t have anything that would fit me, he knew his friend at Go1 was looking for someone at graduate-level. 

I reached out to the Head of Design at Go1, Luke, not mentioning the recruiter’s name (as requested) and struck up a conversation. We planned to meet up for an initial chat but struggled to find a time as Christmas was just around the corner. I told him to reach out in the new year and enjoy his holidays. 

The holidays came and went and in that time I had completely forgotten about Go1. It was actually when Luke reached out again in the new year to ask me if I was still interested that I thought of Go1 again. 

I went through three rounds of interviews with Go1 before landing the role. Luke later told me that a big tick for me was the fact that on my LinkedIn profile I state that I’m pretty good with Dad Jokes. Believe it or not, the presenters at our weekly design meetings have to kick things off with a Dad Joke! 

Are you using what you learned throughout the course in your role?

I am and I’m not. I feel that the Academy Xi course gave me a really good “skeleton” to build from. The process is always going to be unique and different depending on the company and project. No day or task is ever the same. 

I think what has really helped is the mindset of forever being a student. Everyone always has more to learn and the UX is constantly changing in our world. Luckily, I have great people that I work with who are so knowledgeable. I’m really happy to be within a team that uplifts each other and is always willing to share knowledge. 

Finally, would you recommend the course and Academy Xi to other people?

Definitely! Lots of my friends are interested in my new role and I have to explain what UX is. It’s all pretty foreign to them. I don’t even think my Mum properly understands what I do yet!

I’ve got a friend who’s curious about UX, but I’ve told her she needs to make sure it’s the right career for her. It sounds a little dramatic, but UX changes the way you view the world around you. Once you acknowledge that everything is designed, you start to notice that a lot of things are actually designed badly. Not everybody is prepared to make that realisation, which means they’re probably not ready for the course. 

If someone has a burning desire to improve the designs we all rely on day-to-day, I’d say go for it. If you approach everything with an open mind and are prepared to change the way you respond to problems, UX enables you to come up with some pretty effective design solutions.  

Academy Xi provides a top-tier learning environment. As one of the best UX UI Design courses in the country, it’s worth investing in yourself to ensure you have the correct tools and mindset to be able to take on the industry. I feel that Academy Xi not only teaches you the tools, but also that mindset of being able to see the “why” behind the “what” of design.

Why did you pick Academy Xi?

I looked closely at a few courses, but the Academy Xi schedule seemed the most user-friendly. The classes were held twice a week, but there was lots of flexibility when it came to working through the course content. Some of the other courses expected you to block-out your calendar with commitments, which for me just wasn’t possible. 

 I was also drawn to the Career Support Program. Landing a new role was my main objective, so having that support throughout my job search was very important. Finally, I researched the course mentors, and everybody seemed to have a strong amount of industry experience.   

How did you find working with your mentor?

My mentor was Hayden and we hit it off straight away. He’s a fun, interesting character and his passion for UX is unmatched, which I think lit a fire in a lot of people.

 Whenever Hayden was explaining something about UX, he always found a way to tie it back to a real industry scenario that he’d experienced. He also encouraged us to start networking with people already established in UX. 

 As the course progressed, I ramped up my efforts to connect with people in the industry. I have family friends who are already involved with UX and I also connected with professionals through LinkedIn. I wanted to figure out what it takes to be successful in the field and start building some of those habits into my life. For anyone keen to break into the industry, I’d recommend reaching out to other designers and starting a conversation.

What projects did you work on?

For my personal project, I tackled the water wastage problem in the major Australian cities. Truthfully, I made a lot of mistakes with my first project. It was a steep learning curve and gave me the experience I needed to properly approach the client projects. For the two client projects, I worked with Westpac and a startup called FitFun. 

 FitFun is trying to revolutionise the fitness industry by focusing on community and collaboration. Because it was a startup, everything was very fast-paced and we were able to carry out a huge amount of work. My team built a full design strategy for FitFun in just three weeks. 

 For Westpac, we were given the task of redesigning what their autopay function could look and feel like. Even though it’s a relatively small piece of their transactional process, if the process wasn’t optimised it could dissuade a potential customer from using the function. In the end, we had the time and resources to scope out what we thought was an untapped market opportunity. We presented it to Westpac and they were really impressed. Both clients were very happy with the work the teams carried out.

How did you find working in teams? 

As a podiatrist, I’d typically work alone. I’d have no one else in the clinic, so I learned to solve problems by myself. In a group setting, you must understand that you’re not an expert at everything. There are people around who have experience in a range of areas. I’d look at people’s projects and be wowed by the beauty of the design work or impressed by the depth of the research. 

 You start to understand that you can delegate the tasks based on people’s expertise. That approach really allows you to work agile – you’ve got people collaborating on different parts of the project at the same time. Because everybody was playing to their strengths, it meant their work could really shine, which led to a better end result for the group.

 Working in teams is such an important experience, because UX Designers hardly ever work alone. Even if you’re the only UX Designer, you’ll be collaborating with other departments and working cross-functionally. In that sense, the team projects prepare you for the real-world dynamic of UX.  

How did you find studying online? 

Honestly, I was jealous of all the people working from home throughout the pandemic! I loved studying online. Some people prefer doing things face-to-face, but online learning gives you unparalleled levels of flexibility. You have set times for the live classes, but how you use your time before and after is completely up to you. 

 With other courses that require you to regularly be somewhere, there’s so much more demand on your time, which can lead to burnout. When you’re studying online, all that matters is that you’re getting through the work. It really doesn’t matter when and where it gets done. 

 Plus, there were three or four communication channels that the cohort stayed connected through, and you’re regularly in Zoom meetings with each other during the client projects. I never felt like I was studying alone. 

How did you land your new role? 

I got back from a holiday over New Year’s and worked on my portfolio, CV and base cover letter. I was really motivated to find a job and get started with my career, so I set a personal target of 50 applications in 50 days. 

 I was knee deep in interviews when a UX designer at Symbio reached out to me. She had spoken to Academy Xi in the hope to find someone ‘up and coming’ and passionate about launching a career in UX.  After a few interviews with her and the Head of Marketing, where we discussed what the role would entail and how I could add value to the team, I was overjoyed to be offered the job.

 I did sign up for the Career Support Program, but thankfully I landed a role before the program even kicked off. That said, lots of people in the cohort did go through the program and found it really helpful. 

How’re you getting on with the new role at Symbio?

I’ll start with a bit of a background. Symbio has been around for about 20 years – it was started by two friends who dreamt big about what voice products could become in the future. Today, Symbio is a tech company, selling Global XaaS products to different segments of the market – from big companies like Google and Zoom, to smaller telcos, and even government enterprises.

 My work varies, I’ve gone from one business division to the next working on completely different projects. I might come in during the discovery phase and be asked to conduct some research or build a wireframe so a new feature can be tested. This has given me the opportunity to pick up all kinds of skills, especially within stakeholder management and advocacy.  

Did the course prepare you for the role?

The fast-paced nature of the Academy Xi course prepares you for the industry, where you must produce high quality work very quickly and at times, on demand. Completing the course projects in three-week sprints was an accurate representation of how you’re expected to work once you’ve broken into UX. 

 Symbio also runs regular tech talks and I delivered one a few weeks back, which was a great way to spread the word about the value of UX. Whilst I’ve always been a confident speaker, I hadn’t had much experience with public speaking prior to the course. The projects gave me the opportunity to improve upon those soft skills and build them into my capabilities.  

Can you tell us about your involvement with Academy Xi since you’ve graduated?

It’s a challenging course, especially for those with a unique career history, but the payoff for the commitment is immense. 

I like to say, based on my career shift, that if I can do it, anyone can. I’m truly passionate about this industry and think it should be accessible for anyone who shares that passion. I always jump in to talk to the new students whenever a new cohort starts to try and give them some practical advice and a bit of inspiration. 

Beyond that, Symbio was also the client for both projects with a recent cohort. It was a great experience to be on the other side of the brief and provided another learning opportunity for me. To be able to witness their dedication and hard work on a complex and challenging brief was awesome and is something that will stay with me forever. It’s been nice to stay involved with Academy Xi and I’ll definitely continue to work with you folks in the future.

 Finally, would you recommend Academy Xi?

For anyone that is maybe lacking a bit of passion within their work and hoping to do something meaningful and creative, UX is a career that you should consider. The Academy Xi course has given me the opportunity to do it every day, and I’d happily recommend it to anyone wanting to do the same. 

 Want to bring the power of UX UI Design to your career just like Joel? If so, check out our UX UI Design: Transform course.

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