Spotify! I've been looking forward to this interview and I’m happy to finally share it with you.
As some of you may already know, I worked at Spotify for almost three years. So I couldn’t resist reaching out to my friends and asking for their wisdom about landing a design job at Spotify.
Of course, I’m skipping the intro on purpose because I hope Spotify needs no intro. But one thing I will say is that Spotify’s design team sits in Stockholm, New York, San Francisco and London. So if you’re looking for a design or development job, you’re most likely moving or living in one of those cities.
Hey Dan and Stanley, let’s get right to it. Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals and how many came through the traditional application process?
Dan: Referrals helped us a lot in the beginning. As our company grew quickly, we had plenty of new people coming in who wanted to tell us about the great people in their network. Today, we try to find a balance. We want to make sure we’re getting a steady flow of candidates from different backgrounds so we’re trying not to rely on any one source.
Would you say the majority of designers you hire have been pre-selected and head hunted by your team, or do you get a lot of cold applications as well?
Dan: It’s a mix but there’s actually a lot of overlap between the two. For example, a conversation might start with an informal “hello” from us at an event. At that point, it might not make sense to move forward into a formal interview process. A few years later, situations change, roles become available, and that person could end up applying through our Jobs page. It’s rarely ever so simple –– especially when trying to recruit at such a high caliber.
I remember one situation where we were talking with someone and for a number of reasons, they just weren’t the right fit for the role. They wrote back to us later on and said, “Hey, I understand I might not be the right fit but you should really talk to my former manager.” We ended up reaching out to that candidate’s referral, loved them, and now they’re at Spotify.
Thank you for mentioning this Dan. Just a quick example from myself here: My first contact with Spotify was more than a year prior to me actually joining. It was just small conversations until it eventually happened.
But let's say we decide to reach out with a cold message. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us? Or should I just fill out the job posting form?
Dan: Filling out a job post should always be the first step. Beyond that, be creative. It’s really about showing why you’re the best person for a specific role in the quickest possible way.
How important is a visual and complete portfolio for you? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Spotify?
Stanley: A portfolio is the design equivalent of a switchblade: If applied right, it can open up all kinds of doors. This creates a lot of opportunity for a lot people. As an employer, it helps us quickly understand what a candidate can do and how they think about their work.
For example, yesterday a designer told me they hated how their last project turned out. Hearing why they hated it, and understanding what they’d do differently, was super insightful. And helped progress our conversation beyond the superficial.
Portfolios reveal a lot.
“A portfolio is the design equivalent of a switchblade: If applied right, it can open up all kinds of doors.”
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other things? For example being active bloggers or otherwise outspoken in their community?
Stanley: With so many people applying for the same job, it can be hard to attract attention with only your portfolio. Demonstrating who you are outside of your day-to-day job is a helpful way for us to get to know you better and for you to stand out. It’s not that we value a cultivated online presence or persona, but we like seeing people who are passionate about the discipline of design and who actively give back or get involved with the larger community.
Another way is writing. For example, when I review a portfolio I always begin with the About section. I want to know how well the designer can communicate their thinking— if it’s clear, simple and succinct.
Dan: It’s a huge advantage that we get to work on something that so many people are already passionate about. Given that, I always appreciate when a candidate has a strong interest in music. Now that doesn’t mean that you have to have be a musician, or even know who the latest hot band is. It’s really about being passionate about the role music plays in people’s lives and being excited about our larger mission to revolutionize the music space.
What are the top mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Spotify? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:
Stanley: Good to know: Large companies have a recruitment team who filter the candidates the hiring managers review. They do this based on listening to the feedback the managers give them each week in a hiring meeting. Keen not to waste their time, the recruiters preface why they are excited by the candidate we’re about to review.
Things that work for me:
Be someone. We review a lot of portfolios, so show us who you really are even if that may not be what you think “most companies” are looking for in a designer. Package your content in a manner that reflects you, and don’t play it safe by sticking to what’s fashionable. We want to hear your point of view; don’t get lost trying to be someone you think you should be. You won’t be happy for long, and the company that hired you will be disappointed when they see you struggling to be who they thought you were. You’re always your best self when you’re busy being you.
Say something. Imagine us sitting in our weekly meeting room at 5 p.m., the last meeting before home time. We open up your portfolio and see several screenshots of mobile interfaces under a project name. The work seems relevant but there’s no description of what we’re looking at. We don’t know what you did, what the goal was or how you feel about it. We’re left with questions and move on to the next portfolio. Never forget your user.
Don’t say too much. The reverse is equally bad because nobody has time to read and scroll through everything you’ve ever designed. Choose the work that tells your story best—be deliberate about what you share.
“Choose the work that tells your story best—be deliberate about what you share.”
Dan: My biggest piece of advice is to make sure that you craft your application for the role you’re applying for. While it’s easier to just attach a standard resume or portfolio, it’s important to really study the position you’re trying to get. How would you add value to the role? How do you uniquely meet the requirements? What’s the tone the company uses? All of this will help make your application more relevant to the person reading it.
Also, it’s good to know more about where our team is now and where we’re headed. We’ve been growing a lot in the past couple of years and are continuously looking to further establish design and increase its impact in the company. If you know this, you can talk about other fast-growth environments you’ve been in and how you played an instrumental role in establishing and growing design.
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
Dan: I wish more portfolios would tell a more complete and honest story about the person they’re representing. I think there’s a natural tendency to edit down a portfolio to the most attractive highlights. This logically makes sense in most contexts but not for an interview. During our interview process, we want to see both successes and failures. I want to see learnings. I want to see growth.
It’s really the failures that have the most interesting takeaways. It’s inevitable that you will have times in your career when things don’t go the way you expected them to, so we want to see how you dealt with them — what did you take away and what did you do to avoid making the same mistakes again in the future?
Similarly, I’m always looking to understand how self-aware a candidate is. In our team, feedback is important. If you’re self-aware and truly honest about your strengths and weaknesses, then I know we’ll have a good relationship because we can have candid conversations about whether things are working or not working.
Stanley: I’d love people to share more of themselves: What made an impression on you recently? What objects do you own that you love or hate? What are you reading?
Say we make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
Stanley: It begins with the screening stage, where our recruiters find the most relevant candidates. After that there's a portfolio review, and if that goes well, we'll bring the candidate on-site for an interview. The on-site has three parts:
Meeting product managers, researchers, designers, and so on, to check soft and hard skills, as well as cultural fit.
You collaborate on a design exercise.
Finally, lunch with the team and a tour of the office.
Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
Stanley: There is a comment that I love from Brian Collins (from the Collins agency) about looking for a "culture add," not a "culture fit.” We want people who help grow and push the culture forward, not ones that simply fit.
As for industry experience, I think it can be a blessing and a curse, so I try to consider each:
if I meet someone who has little experience but loads of talent, then I’m assessing whether they have the grit to pursue it.
If I meet someone who has lots of experience, then I’m assessing how adaptable they are — can they adjust to different environments and situations?
“We want people who help grow and push the culture forward, not ones that simply fit.”
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?
Dan: Designers here typically operate within small teams on a day-to-day basis. These teams need to be self-sufficient if they’re going to make an impact and move quickly. I look for skills that would help complement the team they’d be joining. For every Simon, I want to find that Garfunkel.
Stanley: One of the specific skills I look for are writing skills. It helps ensure that your thinking is clear.
Last question: How do I get your jobs one day? 😉
Stanley: You could start by filling out an application at spotify.com/jobs and see where that takes you : )
If that feels too soon, learn how to talk about design and how to give creative direction. Being able to articulate design will help you bridge other functions, while providing creative direction will help you scale your design thinking across a team of designers.
Dan: In addition to the above, I’ll add just keep challenging yourself. The more you can evolve your own thinking and skill-set, the more unique you’ll be. The more unique you are, the more in-demand you’ll be.
Yo, Dan and Stanley! You are awesome. Beyond helping us get a job at Spotify, this is all great life advice in general. Thanks for the thought, time and effort.
If you want to work with these guys someday, along with many other wonderful people who create a product we all know and love, here are the main takeaways:
Nr. 1 - Confidently be and show who you are. Don’t try to fit a certain mold. Spotify wants to see who you really are and understand your unique point of view. Stand out and be remembered with a portfolio that represents you as a designer — your personality, your successes and your failures.
Nr. 2 - Provide context in your portfolio. Almost everyone in this interview series has expressed this, so you know it’s important. Briefly explain your process, your specific contribution if you worked on a team, the result and your feelings about the result. Don’t write a novel, just make it easy for Spotify to quickly understand what they’re looking at and how you approach your work.
Nr. 3 - Writing well is important. Spotify will be looking to see how you communicate and present yourself. Put thought and care into the words on your portfolio, emails and application.
Again, this is something I’ve heard several times in this interview series. If you’re not a great writer, it’d benefit you as a designer to take a class or practice to get better. Read my thoughts on writing as a designer in this article.
Nr. 4 - Show that you’ve studied and understand the position. Research the position you’re applying for and make your application reflect it. Shape your resume and cover letter to match Spotify’s tone. Share how you meet or can add value to the role. Make it clear that you care and you’ve done your homework.
Nr. 5 - Get involved in the design community. Spotify likes to see that you’re invested in the community, whether you write or contribute to cool projects or just have a passion for music.
I could talk to Dan and Stanley all day but I’ll let you go for now. Check back soon for more interviews in this series — and if you’re just jumping in, catch up on advice from Nike, MetaLab, Pentagram and more here.