Pursuing a Design Path - Not Easy but Worth it. Part I - By: Joe Kendall '09

Non-traditional paths after Olin - by Joe Kendall '09

The moral of my story is Never Give Up, Never Surrender. That's what my girlfriend jokingly told me to say as I sat down to write about transforming your passions into a career after Olin. As it turns out, it's a pretty good way to sum up my experience after graduating with a Mechanical Engineering degree in 2009.

My Olin degree is officially in Mechanical Engineering, but my passion is in interdisciplinary product design. When I graduated, I thought I wanted to work for a design consultancy like Ideo or Continuum because they seemed like the only place where I could continue working in the same way I had been at Olin. Fortunately for me, I graduated at the height of the worst job market since the Great Depression when nearly every program and company was strapped for cash.

I say it was fortunate but it only seems that way in retrospect. My non-traditional path happened partially by choice, but mostly by necessity. With the economy and hiring at historic low points, there were many interviews but few offers for recent graduates. I scrambled around trying different things, and after fourteen months and four different plans, I finally found a place where I can be passionate about showing up every day to turn incredible ideas into something real.

My first plan for post-graduation life was to explore interdisciplinary design on a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin. My second plan was to take a post-graduation internship with Bose on their in-house materials consulting team in the hopes it would turn into a full-time position. Both had the potential to keep me busy for the next year or two, but neither happened because their funding fell through.

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What I was hoping to see out my bedroom window every day. That didn't work out.

Throughout the Fulbright process and Bose internship, I had been working on my third plan: interviewing with product design teams at Ideo, Apple, Continuum, and many other companies. I learned a tremendous amount from the interviews, but the more I learned about the design industry, the less excited I was. While the prospect of a full-time job enticed me into further interviews, I wanted to work in a more interdisciplinary environment than I could find in these larger companies. It took me a few months to figure it out, but I finally realized that large product development teams weren't the place for me.

That realization left me wondering what to do next. Should I just buckle down and get a standard ME job with a defense contractor? Should I keep looking for a job at a product development firms? I struggled with these questions every day I didn't have a full-time job after graduation. The constant refrain of "we think you're great, but we don't have the money right now. Check back in six weeks" from every interview also started to wear me down.

Even though I felt worn out by the job search, by the time my Bose internship ended I'd decided against finding a full-time job as a mechanical engineer with a defense contractor. Instead, I decided to work as a freelance product developer .The decision was very difficult, but I didn't have much to lose. I hoped that work would keep me busy while I continued interviewing with product design houses. I gave myself a deadline for finding work, either freelance or full-time, and started networking for interesting jobs.

Within two weeks a friend connected me with an early-stage startup in Minneapolis called Pedal Brain. Pedal Brain was developing an iPhone cycling computer for high-performance athletes and needed someone to build them a bike mount and case for the electronics. Like Olin, it was a learn-as-you-go experience and I was put in charge of the initial product design and all mechanical and manufacturing engineering. It wasn't full-time work or as interdisciplinary as I wanted, but it paid and was rewarding to see our prototype on Lance Armstrong's bike.

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Designing Lance Armstrong's next-generation training tool can be a little confidence building. You'd never guess it was built in a basement by five guys with some carbon fiber.

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