Shopify, as I'm sure you know, is an ecommerce platform. It gives you the tools you need to set up and run an online shop, and essentially helps you sell your products. I mean, you could even say Shopify helps power the entire business of ecommerce. It's a massive product, yet it feels friendly and approachable.
Their team is friendly and approachable too. Originally run by five people out of a coffeeshop in Ottawa, Canada, Shopify has grown to a team of more than 2,000 people.
Elyse and Kevin are two of them, and in this interview they're telling us how we can be part of it all.
Hey friends, let’s get right to it. Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?
The majority of our hires come from reach-outs made either by our talent acquisition team or someone on the UX team itself. The results have been pretty successful, which is why we continue to devote a lot of time and effort to it. Oh, and you’ll never see one of those terrible copy-paste reach-outs from recruiters at Shopify. We personally write all of the emails we send to potential candidates.
Referrals are the second biggest source of hires for us. For example, some of our designers who graduated from design programs in Montreal help scout talents through mentorship or attend design grad shows. We also attend local meetups and conferences regularly, which is a great way for us to make connections with people in the community. (That’s how I, Elyse, was hired!)
The traditional application process doesn’t account for as many hires as the other two, but still remains an important part of our recruiting efforts. We go through every single one of the applications and review everyone’s portfolios manually. That helps ensure we never miss out on good candidates, no matter how they entered in the process.
Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?
We actually do try to reply to everyone that emails us for positions, but here are a few things that give you bonus points:
Personality: Who are you? What are you passionate about?
Brevity: Can you get your point across in just a few paragraphs?
Purpose: Do you want any job or do you want a job at Shopify? I know you’re probably applying to many companies, but can you tell us why you’d like to work here?
Motivation and curiosity: Do you have your own online store? Do you use our product? Did you take a stab at building a theme with Slate? What is your opinion on Polaris or the latest articles our UX team published?
"Your portfolio is your voice when you’re not around to explain your projects."
How important is a visual and complete portfolio for you? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Shopify?
A formal portfolio isn’t absolutely required, but it certainly helps. Your portfolio is your voice when you’re not around to explain your projects. Imagine you and I were looking at one of your projects: What story would you tell me? What problem are you solving and what about it was challenging? Which options did you explore and how did you end up with that solution? What constraints did you face? What strategies did you use throughout the project? Who was involved? While a picture is worth a thousand words, the final result sometimes doesn’t fully reflect the depth of your work.
Having that portfolio not only helps us get familiar with your work before the interview, but also helps you get better at talking about your work. That being said, how you showcase your work is totally up to you. Tools like Semplice make it super easy for you to create your own website without any coding skills, but tools like Medium and Dribbble can also do the trick if you use them correctly. If you’d like some tips for how to build a great portfolio,this article on the Shopify blog is a great place to get started.
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
Unsolicited redesigns. While this type of exercise certainly has its value, it’s not something I would encourage designers to put in their portfolio. Unsolicited redesigns lack real-world constraints, which doesn't allow us to assess your product design skills. That’s not to say all unsolicited redesigns are bad, so if you really want to include one in your portfolio, make sure it’s clearly labeled as such, and that you go beyond the visuals and explain the thinking behind your decisions.
If you’re just starting out as a designer, a good alternative to unsolicited redesigns are personal projects. These self-initiated projects are a great way to build up your design and product skills, while also putting something out into the world for people to use. You’ll learn a ton from the experience of launching something and the feedback you’ll get from your users will definitely make you a better designer.
"Magic happens when you cross-pollinate ideas from opposite fields."
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests? For example being active bloggers or otherwise outspoken in their community?
Of course! Writing and publishing requires you to be thoughtful and disciplined. I appreciate designers who voice clear opinions that build their communication skills and feed into their design practice.
Being outspoken in the community is a great way of sharing your knowledge and giving back. There are tons of ways to get involved: mentor someone just coming out of school, teach someone something you just learned, volunteer at a local meetup, etc.
Advocacy and teaching is one way to level up your design craft, but you can also channel your curiosity anywhere to broaden your thinking (no need to stick to design). Magic happens when you cross-pollinate ideas from opposite fields (science and typography, data and art). As designers, it can be easy to get tunnel vision when working on the same project for a while. Find different sources of inspiration; ideas and methodologies act as new lenses for problem solving.
What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Shopify? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:
Applying for the wrong position because they didn't read the job posting. Believe it or not, we’ve had a few fashion designers applying for our design positions, simply because it mentions the word “retail." It’s surprising how little research some people do when applying for jobs these days.
Do you have a favorite story of an application that really stuck with you?
Someone bought Facebook ads directly targeted at Shopify employees. It was very clever and definitely caught our attention.
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
Our interview process is tailored to the role you’re interviewing for, but it’s comprised of multiple interviews that aim to assess every aspect of a candidate. During that interview process, you’ll talk to a lot of people on the team. We do this for two reasons:
It’s one of the ways we try to avoid bias in the decision-making process. By having a lot of people involved the interview process, we’re able to get a more accurate picture of who you are as a person and where you could have the biggest impact. From the candidate’s viewpoint, it also provides them with different perspectives on what it’s like to work on the team.
We all want to work with inspiring people that challenge our thinking, teach us new things and have strong opinions that are weakly held. We want to make sure your future team members are excited about the idea of you joining, so we make sure that they’re part of the decision.
We have four different design-specific interview types that a candidate can go through:
Design Deep Dive: We ask the candidate to pick a topic that they’re passionate about and that they know really well. That can be anything: typography, design systems, perceived performance, using research in design, etc. It’s a very casual interview and resembles conversations you’d have with a friend at work.
Design Duet: This one is a design exercise — but don’t worry, it’s not as terrifying as it sounds. You’ll be paired with a designer from Shopify and you’re given a problem to solve on a whiteboard together. We don’t have a specific solution in mind and the other person is there to help you think through the problem. We use this exercise to get a better feel for how you work, think and communicate.
Design Life Story: We go through your experience chronologically (jobs you’ve had, tools you’ve used, people you’ve learned from, etc.) It allows us to get a better idea of your past experiences and see how you’ve grown over the years.
Portfolio Review: This is where you show some of your best work. I say some, because the goal isn’t to blaze through as many projects as you can in 60 minutes. We tend to focus on the two or three projects that have had the most impact and talk in depth about them. We want to hear about the problem you had to solve, what your process was like, the challenges you faced, what you learned from this project and what you’d do differently if you could do this project again today.
"Instead of trying to guard our culture, we embrace the fact that it is constantly evolving and getting better with each person we hire."
Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
While experience is important, what we look for is someone who has a high potential for growth. No matter what skills a designer might have, there are qualities and attitudes that are hard to fake, like curiosity, self-awareness, a strong desire to learn and openness to feedback. The people who thrive at Shopify are able to synthesize feedback from their peers, apply findings from a project to another, and seek help from other disciplines to discover and bridge the gaps.
That being said, I’m not a huge fan of the term "culture fit." It implies that culture is a thing that should be protected and that there’s a specific mold you have to fit into, which simply isn’t true. So instead, we’ve been calling it "culture addition." It’s a subtle but important distinction. A cultural addition is someone that brings something new to the team. A new kind of experience or a different perspective that challenges your thinking. What “culture addition” is not however, is a specific personality type, a specific background or a particular set of interests. So instead of trying to guard our culture, we embrace the fact that it is constantly evolving and getting better with each person we hire.
Do we need to have ecommerce experience to get a design job at Shopify, or are you willing to teach us?
While having ecommerce experience is certainly a plus, it’s not required. In fact, neither Elyse nor I had an ecommerce background before joining Shopify. As a company, we’re not fond of the status quo, so we value people that can bring a fresh perspective. We have UX folks from very different backgrounds like architecture, literature and anthropology. The common thread is that they’re highly motivated by complex problems. That’s why we put a lot of effort into sourcing candidates from fields you wouldn’t necessarily expect, and invest time into teaching them what they need to know to be successful.
We also have a dedicated UX programs team that helps onboard new team members, creates workshops and even puts together our very own internal design conference every year. When we say we want to build for the long term, we really mean it. And that starts with giving people access to the best resources to take their career to the next level right here at Shopify.
What are the secondary skills you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example, do you prefer business skills over coding skills? Video skills over coding?
What’s great is that Shopify is at a size where all of these secondary skills can be useful. We have a lot of product design projects, but we also have a studio team that produces video content. We have people who design hardware like our newcard reader and even people who work on interactive installations for pop-up stores. So I don’t think it’d be right for us to point out a certain skill as more important than the others. I’d encourage people to find what they’re really passionate about and dive into that. We can never have enough smart, talented, passionate people who can teach us new things.
"We want to make every year at Shopify worth 10 years of experience elsewhere."
How do you think Shopify is different when hiring new talent compared to other tech companies or design studios?
Our hiring process is much more human than what I’ve experienced in other companies in the past. We spend a lot of time and effort truly getting to know people, and then trying to understand where and how they can make an impact here. We also make sure that people who join our team are set up for success and are placed in the best environment to grow. We want to make every year at Shopify worth 10 years of experience elsewhere. We hire smart people and we treat them as such. People are empowered to do their best work here, and you can feel that sense of ownership and care when using our products.
Elyse and Kevin, thank you so much for your time and insight into the inner workings of Shopify! There's so much wisdom here. Let's unpack it.
Nr. 1 - Make a connection with someone on the Shopify team.
Referrals are the second-biggest source of hires for Shopify. So do your research and attend meetups or conferences where you might meet someone from the team. Introduce yourself and make a connection.
Nr. 2 - Avoid unsolicited redesigns in your portfolio.
Targeting Shopify employees with Facebook ads is pretty brilliant. Think of something equally clever that shows your interest and gets their attention. Of course this is optional, but it certainly increases your chances, and it's fun!
That's all for now! If you're just jumping into the How to Get a Job at X series through this interview, catch up here. You'll find other awesome people with helpful advice about getting jobs at places like Nike, Airbnb and Unsplash.
Thanks for reading, and good luck at the interview!