Shannon Soper


Being yourself in a job hunt, and not taking rejection personally

21 June, 2024

In this post, I'll explain how I learned that hiring decisions are often made based upon factors not obvious in job descriptions. Which led me to the unexpected conclusion that the right response is to avoid over-tailoring your resume or portfolio and focus instead on consistently broadcasting your top strengths.

And if you make it to the end of this post, you'll see the most absurd, awkward, funny, and embarrassing stories from my job hunt ;).

Facts about my job hunt

I’m a Senior Product Designer with 6 years’ experience designing developer tools, and a previous 4 years’ experience designing online learning experiences as an Instructional Designer.

  • Jobs applied to during 6 months: 100
  • Referrals: 3
  • Referrals that led to a job offer: 1
  • Full interview cycles (where I completed all interviews for a role and was one of the top candidates considered for the role): 5
  • Job offers: 2
  • Jobs quit: 1 (after 3 months)
  • Jobs offers that were rescinded due to HR deciding they wouldn’t allow me to be remote: 1
  • Do I have a job right now? No. Email me at or on LinkedIn if you want to connect!

Insights, in order from starting the search to doing final interviews.

Job hunting is not my favorite job

Sometimes I forget that I actually really like product design, because I’m spending all my time job hunting. It’s fun to take breaks to do design exercises, go to meetups, and look at funny design fails to remember that I actually like designing and am quite good at it.

Don’t look at # of applicants

Every job on LinkedIn shows 100+ applicants. What I've heard from recruiters is that many of those 100+ applications are trash applications from people who aren’t designers at all and just have some bot apply to every open job on the internet.

Sticking with one industry produces interviews

Though I’m interested in many industries, especially edTech, biotech, and healthcare, I almost only get responses from developer tool companies (which is the industry I've designed for in the last 6 years).

Two likely reasons for this higher rate of success:

  1. Recruiters and hiring managers want to increase their chance of hiring a successful employee, so they often pursue the candidate whose portfolio looks almost identical to the work they need.
  2. Most technical tools and SaaS products aren’t as “sexy” and can seem intimidating to designers. Therefore, they are less competitive than applying to Airbnb or Instagram. So, you’re more likely to get an interview there, just by virtue of actually applying and if your projects show you can design for technical audiences.

At first, it seemed like a less-than-ideal constraint to stick to one industry, and then I got more excited because the interviews are also easier for me. I don’t have to completely rewrite my presentations to fit audiences with no background in developer tools.

And, it’s fun to get a higher success rate. Once I started only applying to developer tool companies and dev tool departments inside of larger companies, I started getting responses to 20% of my applications, which is a really high rate.

Writing cover letters produces interviews

I know I already argued that tailoring your applications & interviews isn't worth it; but taking 5 minutes to slightly tailor cover letters is worth it. I research the company and use the first paragraph of the cover letter to introduce myself and show I know what their product's purpose is. Then, the rest of the cover letter is from some templates that I edit. I copy and paste into their text field rather than uploading a pdf.

At first, I thought maybe AI was reviewing applications and I had to optimize my resume with keywords. It seems like real people are still reading applications. I heard that at one company, they scan the first 50 or 100 or so and then make decisions.

Use Simplify to fill repetitive info

The Chrome extension fills in your resume, links to LinkedIn, portfolio, etc and contact info on applications so you don’t have to keep retyping them or opening lots of tabs to copy and paste.

What happened to my two job offers?

I accepted the first one. Within the first 90 days, it became obvious it was not the right bet to take. It was an AI startup where the following were true:

  1. founders had fundamental disagreements about what AI could/couldn’t do
  2. founders weren’t communicating often enough, and weren’t willing to change
  3. one person abruptly tried to undermine me and push me out in passive aggressive ways, accusing me (in front of others) of things I didn’t do, pressuring me to pass along my assignments to another designer, and spreading a culture of mistrust by putting other people on the spot in public

It was sad, because I liked the founders as people and was initially excited about the potential of the product vision. After observing the first two things, I was going to keep the job but start looking for a new one. After the third thing happened, I quit, even with no other job lined up.

Another company gave me a soft job offer and then rescinded it, because their HR department had become inflexible about their hybrid work policy. The role was supposed to be hybrid in Seattle, and I’m moving to SLC, UT. Initially they said this was fine because none of the team is in Seattle anyway, and then HR became more strict than they had been in the past, and wouldn’t make an exception. I felt sad about losing this opportunity. I appreciated that the hiring manager set up a lot of meetings to advocate for me, and I hope we cross paths again.

Who is getting all the jobs?

Whenever I have completed an interview cycle and didn’t get an offer, I waited a couple months before looking up the team on LinkedIn to see who got the job.

It’s almost always someone who is leveling down. E.g. a staff designer accepting a senior designer role.

Many talented designers got laid off in the last couple years. Many lead designers are interviewing for senior design roles, managers are interviewing for staff designer roles, etc. They are willing to take pay cuts and have slightly less influential roles.

This is bad news for everyone. These more senior folks will chafe at the constraints of more junior roles. If and when the job market ever improves, they will leave their roles for something better.

Because of these disadvantages of hiring overqualified folks, I’m not sure why hiring managers are still hiring them. It’s probably hard to resist the temptation of “getting more bang for your buck."

Asking the hiring manager for feedback

I’ve asked for feedback every time I got rejected from a role. Recruiters almost always make up something generic like “use more keywords in your resume.” I don’t think they ask the hiring manager for feedback. They are just guessing.

I’d only trust a resume/portfolio review if you pay an experienced person to review it for you, or someone with hiring experience offers to review it for you (even if they are a recruiter, they can be more candid with you since you're not actually applying to a real job but just asking for feedback).

Feedback is a clue about the organization’s true needs

I’ve had three hiring managers give me feedback.

What feedback did I get?

Early in my career, I intended to get into UX Research roles. I arranged an informational interview with a UX Research Manager at Stripe. Stripe's design organization has an excellent reputation. When I got on the call, it was clear this manager did not want to be there, and I floundered and doubted the questions I prepared (I had no idea how to do an informational interview and had just made my best guess). Thankfully, she gave me good feedback on my goal to get a UX Research role by bluntly telling me I wouldn't get hired as a UX Researcher since I didn't have a degree in it and didn't write reports that matched the rigors of academia. I had been doing scrappy UX Research at startups, and I was really good at it. But bigger companies need UX Researchers who know how to make sure customers aren't getting messaged too often, run airtight studies that meet the standards of confidentiality, etc.

Though this feedback stung and I wish she would have acted happier to help and used a warmer tone, it changed my career trajectory. I told my brother-in-law, a Product Manager at Google, about this experience and he encouraged me to pivot towards product design, since it's more of a craft. If you can show that you created designs that produce good results, no one cares if you have a degree. I'm grateful for these bits of guidance, because I still get to do a lot of UX Research AND ship designs and watch the results!

Recently, I’ve been messaging hiring managers on LinkedIn whenever I find out they aren’t making me an offer. I’m paying for the lowest tier of LinkedIn, which allows me to message people I’m not connected to yet. This has worked out better than reaching out via email. Maybe they feel more comfortable giving feedback via a non-work channel.

One person forgot most of my presentation

One hiring manager who gave me feedback 2 days after my presentation seemed to have completely forgotten one of the two projects I presented. They also said they wanted someone who displayed more evidence of collaboration. Tragically, that is one of my superpowers. And they didn’t ask me any questions about it during the interviews.

I took time to reflect. What could I learn from his feedback?

  1. His emphasis on collaboration could mean their team is really struggling in silos with designers as ticket takers. They are looking for someone to rescue them. They are nervous about this, so they don’t want to emphasize it in interviews too much.
  2. I could have emphasized collaboration more, without being asked about it. And generally made my presentation more memorable.
  3. He didn’t remember the interview well, for whatever reason, and didn’t check his notes. He is relying on vague memories.
  4. He doesn’t have the self-awareness to know why he made the decision.
  5. There is some other reason he decided not to proceed, and he doesn’t want to tell me that reason so made up another excuse.

One person ended up caring about something they didn’t expect

Another hiring manager at an excellent company told me that I did a great job with my portfolio presentation and behavioral interviews. It was super useful to know what went well.

Where I fell short of their expectations was in my presentation of a take-home assignment. She said that I could have expressed more enthusiasm for user needs.

I felt somewhat upset by this feedback at first, because the take-home assignment’s purpose, according to their instructions, was to show my visual design skills. The other battery of interviews exhaustively focused on user needs, so they gave me the take-home simply to see what I could get done in Figma in 3 hours.

Upon more reflection, I can see a few reasons they ended up valuing enthusiasm for user needs, even though they hadn’t put it in the assignment description.

  1. It’s possible that someone else who presented the same take-home assignment was way more enthusiastic than me, and the hiring team realized they wanted that enthusiasm. They simply didn’t know they wanted it until they saw it.
  2. They might have wanted that enthusiasm because they’re working on a totally new product within their company. They need everyone working on that new product, including designers, to be cheerleaders, to get the sales team and executives pumped up about it. They don’t want to admit they want a cheerleader designer, because maybe it’s a little scary to feel your department hasn't gotten its feet under it yet. s So, I learned that feedback are clues about how the world works. If you’re lucky enough to hear feedback, pretend you’re a detective and an anthropologist and psychologist. Some of the feedback will point to things you can improve, and much of it will point to how the organization is working and how human beings aren’t perfect at predicting what they want, and don’t always know why they made certain decisions.

In an uncertain world, BE YOURSELF to the MAX

In chatting with others about the uncertainty behind how hiring decisions are made, I realized you just have to BE YOURSELF. In every interview, every interaction, make your top 3-5 strengths obvious.

Present the same strengths to everyone, and at some point, it will randomly align with what a hiring manager realizes they want, even if they didn’t know they wanted it.

This will make your life easier, since you don’t have to tailor your resumes and portfolio presentations and you’ll have extra time and energy to apply to more jobs.

Caveat: It's a lot lower cost to tailor your conversations, which shows you are listening and understand their product, so I definitely do that. I've just stopped tailoring my slideshows and resume, and I just minimally tailor cover letters.

Of course, if you like tailoring resumes and slideshows, by all means, go for it. It might make a difference, and it also might be a waste of time 75% of the time, since the hiring team may change their minds about what they value anyway.

Funny / awkward stories

Because job hunting can be tedious, I reflected on the funniest/worst interviews I've been in:

They had the ball(s)

Throughout an entire 1 hour Zoom interview, a product manager bounced up and down on an exercise ball. Every time he bounced up, his face blurred in his background filter. I almost asked him to stop, and decided his judgment was so poor, it wasn’t worth giving him feedback because I wasn’t interested in the job.

An unexpected expert

A designer did a collaborative design exercise interview with me. She asked me to imagine what school teachers value. I said “they value student success, and they are pressured to value meeting their district’s standards so they can continue to get funding.” She said “Wrong. They only value student success.” Turned out she is the authority on what all teachers think ;).


A hiring manager said “Who are you again? What role are you interviewing for? I’m so disorganized, haha.”

Work-life balance = running a cafe

The same hiring manager said “This company has great work-life balance. I spend half my time running a cafe with my husband.”

Ghosting me

2 different Meta recruiters emailed me to invite me to set up a phone call interview. I emailed them back immediately, and they never responded. It’s been months.

Not reading emails

I showed up to an interview where the hiring manager wanted to ask me all about the materials she had emailed me ahead of time. I hadn't read the email carefully because I thought it was an auto-generated email from the recruiter rather than a personal one from her. I felt very embarrassed.

An Old West style shoot-out

One company invited me to attend their company demo day as a guest, as part of my interview process. Attending was very useful and seeing their crisp, exciting, and short demos made me want to join the company. However, they unexpectedly asked all guests to introduce themselves. Right after I introduced myself, another senior product designer introduced themselves. It felt very uncomfortable to know who my competition was…

Still no job

So what do I do next?

Apply to another few dozen jobs, armed with the knowledge that if I focus on dev tool companies and keep broadcasting my 3-5 top strengths, at some point it will work out. It might take longer in this market than I’d like.

What are my superpowers?

Since I'm arguing that broadcasting your 3-5 top strengths is the way to find a good fit, here are mine:

  1. I'm Dr. Design. I'm truly interested in understanding user's needs and problems, through research, and "diagnosing" the problems so I can prescribe solutions.
  2. I'm MVP-obsessed. I'm ferociously committed to shipping MVPs because I love seeing results and solving user problems as fast as possible. I've found that exploring multiple design options, early on, prevents my teams from spending too long designing something too big.
  3. My Figma files are tidy & easy to use. They have decision logs about why we made certain design decisions. The layers are labelled. There are no unused layers.
  4. I'm a concise writer. I produce design specs that include a hypotheses, how we will test it, and competitor analyses. I write 1-page UX Research summaries and meeting agendas with clear objectives. I give 5 minute presentations with clear takeaways.
  5. I minimize confusion and misalignment by facilitating shared knowledge. I invite my teammates to usability tests, sketching exercises, and design feedback sessions. For lingering misalignment issues that I notice, I set up one-on-one conversations.

Email me at or on LinkedIn if you want to connect! And just because I'm focusing on applying to dev tool companies, that's just to make my job hunt more efficient. I'm also interested in other industries and I'm very open if people reach out to me!