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Inside Figma: my time as a new grad

Josh Shi, Software Engineer, Figma

Josh joined Figma after graduating from college in 2018 and is an engineer on the design systems team. While reflecting on his journey to Figma, he shares his advice for new grads as they think about taking the next step: choosing the right company, finding a role that fits their interests, and making the transition to the working world.

I’m not going to bury lede here: I graduated from college and went from full-time student to real-world adult faster than you can say “congratulations.” I didn’t know what I was doing as a senior in college when I decided to join Figma — all I knew when I signed the offer letter was that every person I had met at Figma during my onsite was incredibly kind, thoughtful, smart, and seemed genuinely interested in understanding who I was as a person. It was unlike any other interview process. I still remember the discussion I had with the team at the lunch table that day and thinking later on that I couldn’t have had such an honest and open conversation anywhere else.

This is basically to say that I can’t in good conscience give you a “why I joined Figma” blog post, not only because it would be disingenuous for me to pretend like I possessed some kind of pre-professional prescience as a senior in college, but also because my intention is not to present my reasoning for joining Figma as authoritative or prescriptive. When I was in school, I found that most of the advice geared toward students for thinking about working life revolved around a set of boxes to check off and assessing companies by the industry heuristics du jour: interesting problems, smart people, good culture, etc. I imagine that very few people would argue with wanting any of the above, but I don’t think that they can be used as a framework or make the idea of work personally meaningful.

The things I’ve learned since joining Figma are certainly valuable, but even more valuable are the questions that I’ve learned to ask about myself and my relationship to work. It’s so easy to get hyper-focused on solutions (after all, problem-solving is supposedly the impetus of engineering as a discipline!) that we forget that there’s so much more power in determining which questions get asked. Rather than giving you a set of boxes to check, I’m going to share a framework for approaching your job search. While it won’t answer all of your questions, it will nudge you to reflect on your non-negotiables and nice-to-haves in a job, and how to think about work in the context of everything else.

The mythical work-life

I think one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to meaningfully talk about adult life (especially about adult working life) is that a lot of the common discourse is so unhelpful. Take, for example, the concept of work-life balance. If the Google image search results for the term are to be trusted, the common mental model for work-life balance is some kind of teeter-totter on which the directly opposing aspects of work and life are balanced over a fulcrum. While this idea makes intuitive sense, it’s reductive and ultimately misleading.

It is true that there is such a thing as achieving a balance between the time that you spend at work and the time you spend outside of work, but framing life and work as two parts of a zero-sum game obscures the very nature of work and life itself. Work and non-work are not two distinct entities that cancel each other out. In fact almost the opposite is true: the hours you spend at work and outside of work amount to how you spend your life. Work and life are interdependent—rather than mutually exclusive—factors that affect not only your life as a whole, but also each other.

Some people tie their identity to their work more closely than others, and there’s obviously no right or wrong way to go about doing that. In any case, it would disingenuous to say that you’ve achieved the right work-life balance simply by identifying the right number of hours to spend at work. Work is not a hermetically sealed and timeboxed activity which can be treated as independent from the rest of your life — your satisfaction with the work that you do affects your satisfaction in the rest of your life, and vice versa.

I should acknowledge that no one is in complete control of all the circumstances of their work, and some have even less control than others. Toni Morrison’s essay, “The Work You Do, The Person You Are,” presents a relationship between work and life that stems from a demeaning job she had as a child, and the conclusion, the mantra “Go to work. Get your money. And come on home,” is a reflection of those conditions. It has always been a badge of privilege to be able to think of work as not simply a job but part of a career, and especially in times of economic hardship when employment is by no means a guarantee, a career seems more precious than ever. Regardless of our circumstances, we each face the same question: how do we frame our work relative to our lives in a way that allows us to live the way we want?

For those of us who have the privilege to, this means asking questions like: what kinds of work am I interested in and how does this workplace satisfy those interests? In this work environment, how would I go about learning or developing my interests? Do I see my interests changing, and if so, do I think my work could adapt to accommodate my interests? What skills or crafts does this work afford me the opportunity to develop, and in what ways? What other interests does my work allow me to cultivate?

The more things change

Joining Figma as a new grad, I had lots of opportunities to learn new things. There were, of course, the new technical experiences; Figma introduced me to doing full-stack work and writing C++ for the web. But more importantly, I got the opportunity to really own features and participate in the product development process: what it takes to thoughtfully scope and build a feature or product, disambiguate a goal, or take an idea from inception to launch.

None of this would have been possible without the support and guidance of the people around me. The people I’ve worked with have been incredible mentors (in many cases probably without them even realizing) who have given me the opportunity to challenge myself and take ownership for the things I make. Most of the people I ate lunch with at my interview three years ago still work at Figma, and I’m still benefitting from their generosity and expertise.

Of course, the Figma I work at today is different from the company I joined two years ago. Within that time, both the company and the product have grown tremendously, and we’ve started transitioning toward a hybrid model of remote and in-person work. But after all this time, the things that first me excited to come to work continue to be true, and I’ve haven’t stopped learning since I got here.

Parting words

I really only have one concrete piece of advice to offer prospective grads: get a hobby. School for me was a blur of fevered activity, constantly running (often literally) from one thing to the next. Working life is starkly simple in comparison, and for the first couple of weeks after work, the question of what to do with my free time stared me in the face. It was one thing to not be used to having so much time to myself, but it was another thing to be clueless about how to use it once I got it back.

After all, isn't free time by its very nature empowering? Invigorating? Life-affirming? Shouldn't I have felt all the endless potential of my newfound adulthood and independence?

In Franz Kafka's novel Amerika there's a scene in which the protagonist, Karl, a European immigrant who has just arrived in America, is being hounded by two swindlers who promise to find him a job but only end up pilfering his belongings and eating his food. At one point he manages to elude them by ducking into the office of a nearby hotel, where Karl encounters a cook who asks him:

"So then you’re free?"

"Yes, I’m free," said Karl, and nothing seemed more worthless than his freedom.

After leaving school, I found in some ways I was more lost than ever. This freedom, however, only felt worthless to me because I wasn’t used to having "nothing" as a thing in itself, and so I perceived it as a lack. As I adjusted to my new life, however, I realized that this freedom is really the tabula rasa on which we begin the long and difficult process of inscribing our own meaning.

Looking for the right hobby is a lot like looking for the right job (with a lot lower stakes): different hobbies afford different experiences (creating, exploring, learning, etc.), and it’s totally up to you to define what you get out of a hobby at any given point in time. Like searching for a job, finding the right hobby isn’t necessarily easy or quick, but don’t sweat it. For the first time in a long time, there’s no rush.

If any of this resonates with you, learn more about Figma and check out our open roles here.

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