4 takeaways from my first year at a software company

An agency designer discovers a new world.

Mikołaj, looking slightly to the right from behind.

Mikołaj Biernat

Apr 29, 2024


7 min read

This month marks my first year at NordPass. Usually, I don't make a big thing about work anniversaries. But this one represents a major turning point in my career — when after almost five years, I left an agency to join a software company.

"So what?" you ask. "People change jobs all the time!" And I get it — this may seem ordinary. But for a digital product designer, this meant a transition to a completely new environment.

For the first time in my career, there was no middleman between me and the people who wanted my services. This is, ultimately, what every professional in the so-called creative industry strives for. But it costs you a sense of security. There used to be someone who would help you deal with the client — but now you have to handle them all by yourself.

And while the NordPass folks have supported me throughout my onboarding, that first year was still challenging. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but it took me as long as six months to feel somewhat comfortable with my responsibilities.

Now, as I reflect on the past year, I can open up about what surprised me after I joined. Some of these things may be common knowledge. But if you're going through a similar change in your career, read on — and you'll have more accurate expectations about working at a software company than I did.

There's no client

At an agency, there's an inevitable divide between you and the client. Sure, you're both on the same team — but it's made of two parties.

No matter how hard I tried to be considered my client's equal, I never quite was. And I believe that's fair. If they wanted a true team member, they'd hire in-house. Still, I could tell that the nature of our relationship was taking away some of my responsibilities. Let me explain.

Don't know how a feature works? Ask the client! We're past the deadline? Leave that to the client! Have trouble talking to the developers? Bring the client into the discussion!

See a pattern? The client was the answer to all of my problems. It didn't cross my mind that maybe I should try to solve them myself ("I've got enough on my plate already!").

So imagine my reaction when I joined a software company where I had to deal with such issues! Fortunately, the initial shock didn't last for long. And after a couple of small projects, I felt at home.

Gru from Despicable Me presenting three signs. The first sign says "I wanna feel like a part of the team". The second one says "So I join a software company". The third one says "There's no client". Gru looks at the last one, anxious.

Nowadays, when a project kicks off, I'm collecting all the necessary information by myself. It doesn't mean that I've become Mr. Know It All — I still depend on my research and insights from the stakeholders. But the fact that there's no client I can go to with any inconvenience has made me more independent.

And when my projects launch, I have to monitor how our users enjoy them as well. Nobody will come to me after a few months asking to improve the design (like it used to be during my agency days). I'm responsible for the impact of my work. And you know what? It feels damn good.

Do understand what you're working on

It's ridiculous how often I used to get away with not fully understanding the project I was working on. While it never got so bad that my client had to tell me exactly what to do … sometimes I wished they did.

I wasn't proud of my ignorance, but I rolled with it. Sure, I might not have vibed with all of my clients equally — but nobody had a problem with that.

Since I've joined NordPass, I've fixed my attitude. Now, you could wake me up in the middle of the night, ask for an elevator pitch, and I'd answer as if I had the documentation in front of me (please don't do that).

What helped me improve was having more time to delve into a project. At an agency, the more billable hours you log, the better. And clients don't love it when you spend their money trying to understand the project.

But here, research is an investment. Not only does it prepare me for an unexpected 2 a.m. interrogation — but my designs are way better too.

Here's an example. I've recently worked on an integration. From the user's perspective, it couldn't be more simple — it literally takes a few clicks to set up. You'd think that I designed it in half a day (lunch break included). And if we're talking about creating the final UI, you'd be right. But that's only because the rest of my budget went into understanding what's happening behind those clicks.

With a deep understanding of the tech requirements, I can identify and design for corner cases myself without having my product manager point them out for me. And I'm also more informed on back-end solutions in general — the next time someone mentions OAuth, I know it inside and out!

Happy path is just one of the many

Working primarily on MVPs at the agency, I used to prioritize the big picture stuff. Early-stage startups need to dazzle investors and early adopters, so I'd spend 90% of my time designing the happy path. The remaining 10% would go into error states — but only if the developers were nagging me about them.

I'd approach a project with one idealistic scenario in mind and skip anything that wasn't part of it. I thought I was playing it smart. But in reality, I was ignorant — both towards the users and the business. I've missed out on so many opportunities to create a memorable experience and (potentially) turn people into paying customers only because they strayed from the happy path.

Now, these proportions are almost swapped. Sure, I still prototype with the key Jobs-To-Be-Done first. But I no longer consider a solution to be complete if it doesn't cover all the corner cases.

Not everyone believes in design

Shocker, right? Well, it was for me!

Bare in mind that prior to NordPass, I've worked at a design agency — a company built on deep appreciation for the craft. Everyone — including the project managers, developers, and salespeople — shared a passion for beauty and function.

And the clients paid us good money for our services. They must have had at least some understanding of design to justify the investment.

So when I left my bubble, I felt confused. In this company, design was not a core value — but merely another department. If you wanted to spend your days practicing user-centered design, you had to show how it makes the numbers go up. At first, I saw that as a shortcoming — until I realized that it's an opportunity to shape how the organization perceives design.

But to do that, I had to ask myself: "Why should anyone care about design?" I thought I knew the answer. I could tell when I saw good design. But I failed to explain why it's good.

So I challenged myself to figure it out. I traded my gut feelings for studies and heuristics. I started sharing my research with the team. And little by little, I earned their trust, making it so much easier to get them on board with my design initiatives.

A few years ago, I would have laughed at the thought of people working as design advocates. "It sounds like a bullshit job!" But I get it now (sort of).

Here's to another one!

What a year! Anecdotally, I knew that changing your job was the fastest way to learn (and get paid!) more. But I never would have guessed that it'll be that much.

Updated on Apr 29, 2024