How to get a design job at Google

The senior designer at Google reveals the secrets of getting hired: "be prepared".

I caught up with Fabio Sasso at the Reasons To Be Creative conference in Brighton last week. I've known Fabio via email since I took over as editor of Digital Arts four years ago. Back then he was an independent web designer and blogger who contributed some of our most popular Photoshop tutorials from his studio in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Since then he's joined Google, where he's a senior designer, and moved to California – though he still finds time to run his ever-popular blog, Abduzeedo.

His talk at RtbC charted the highs and lows of his career, from losing everything during a robbery at his studio in Sao Paolo to being approached – and then hired – by the web services giant. He also got a gentle ribbing from his girlfriend Ibby, who pretended to be an audience member and asked pointedly how he found time to run Abduzeedo while working full-time at Google – and how he found time for a life outside the two.

We sat down after his talk with a well-deserved pint (above), accompanied by Ibby, to discuss his experiences with Google – and how you too could get a design job there.

NB: Why did you want to work for Google?

FS: "When I started my company back in 2004, I never imagined I'd go back to work for somebody else. When I got the [email about applying to work at Google], I knew it was right. It was not just that chance to work for them, it was an opportunity to move to another country – where I could have more opportunities overall. I remember thinking, 'If I can't adapt to it, I can always go back and start my own company again – so I'm going to give it a try'."

NB: What did you think of Google before you joined?

FS: "I didn't [have a mental image of what working at Google would be like], as I was coming from a different country. I had no idea about the culture of the US or its working culture. Everything was new.

"It was way better than how things worked in Brazil, where are people looking to take your job. Everything [in Brazil] is so insecure. At Google, they treat you nice. It made me feel a bit insecure – [I asked myself] 'what did I do to deserve this?' – but now I'm getting used to it. [laughs]

NB: What surprised you most?

FS: "It was way bigger than I imagined. It's a massive company. I didn't have experience of working inside that before I joined.

"It's a bit like when I was in college and I had to do projects with my whole class. We had design critiques and then other designers would come in and give us more feedback.

"This was something that I was missing [in my career previous to Google]. When you're in a two person company, sometimes you agree about things but there's no discussion. You get used to that other person and there's no conversation anymore.

Fabio on stage at Reasons to be Creative

NB: What's different about working at Google?

FS: "It was also a chance to work on a product that has a huge audience. It's not like designing for a small company where it's easy to understand what you have to do. There's so much to learn and for me it's more of an opportunity to learn.
"Also, I feel like I'm more of a product designer than a [graphic or web designer]. Product design is all about creating many iterations, and learning from your mistakes and seeing how can you improve it. It's about constantly changing things. Some people might think it's more boring, as you don't have the challenges of a new thing everyday."

NB: How do you change your mindset from being a designer for clients to being a product designer?

FS: "[You need to] be more open. You're not always right. When you're designing a product you're always learning. You need to learn when is the right moment to innovate, otherwise you'll keep doing the same thing – as that's what the audience wants and there's no innovation. Find the balance between when it's time to break the rules and when to follow them.

"It's also about looking at it like a long-term project – like running a blog. Abduzeebo is very similar in some ways. We've been tweaking the site for seven or eight years now. We've been through the process of finding out that 'this redesign looks more beautiful but people aren't finding the content'. By tweaking, you end up with something that's not exactly what you wanted, but it performs way better.

"I ask myself 'What is good design?': A beautiful design or one that just works. It depends on what you want to achieve. Do you want something that appears in design galleries? Then make it super beautiful. Otherwise – and for my blog especially – it's all about trying to make sure that things are working.

[You also have to accept that there are parts of your product that] you cannot control. At Google, we have Google images. We cannot [move images higher up the search ranking] because it's more beautiful. It depends on what people are searching for: you have the algorithm, the ranking. You can't predict if its the one that's perfectly composed.

NB: How do you get a job at Google?

FS: "Google is hiring designers. We want to have more designers. The most important thing is to find a position that you like. Put together a nice presentation and portfolio that shows you can meet [the challenges of that position]. Go there. Be prepared. Present those key factors that we're looking for in a way that proves you can do it, and you can get a job at Google."

NB: Do you need to be a generalist?

FS: "It depends a lot on the team that's hiring. Me personally, I prefer more of a generalist than a specialist as I find it easier to work with those people because I'm a generalist too."   

NB: Why do you think they hired you?

FS: "Because they had completely lost their minds [laughs]. Abduzeedo was a nice project that I had that proved I was able to deliver, and that  I was able to work under pressure. Abduzeedo allowed me to try different things. We had an iPhone app, and in the interview I showed we had an app I had built, and a web version of the app.

NB: Tell us about the infamous interview process

FS: "It's not simple. There are exercises to see if you can do the job. It's a regular interview, but you have to be prepared. You have to be able to lead the interviewer through the process behind how you created something, not wait for them to ask you lots of questions. Cover as much as you can.

"Once you get approved by that, you have to go in front of hiring committees. It's an arduous process. It takes three-to-four months.

"Going for the interview is an easy and simple process. You go to the interview and do some exercises. But you have to be prepared. That's the tricky part.

NB: Why have you kept Abduzeebo going?

FS: "The blog gives me freedom. If I want to do a Photoshop poster, I just do it. My constraints are just my time, around my girlfriend who's going to get mad at me because I'm working all the time. [laughs and looks at Ibby, who laughs too].

The Reasons to be Creative conference in Brighton brought together the likes of Stefan Sagmeister, Jon Burgerman, Geri Coady, Erik Spiekermann, Naomi Atkinson, Fabio Sasso, Mr Bingo and more to discuss topics dear to most creatives' hearts: from finding happiness and creative success and failure, to how to motivate yourself and change what you do for the better. It even got attendees singing in unison.

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