At the start of the pandemic, Yao Wei Kwek had quit his job and was on the brink of a new adventure, ready to board a plane for Europe. What happened next? A big career change amidst a global lockdown.

Yao Wei, please tell us a bit about your background and how your career started out?

I was born in Singapore and have lived here my whole life. From a very young age, I always wanted to be a fiction writer, because I loved reading. I ended up studying English Language and Literature at university but soon after realized that fiction writing was not a lucrative or viable career opportunity for me.

I became a publication writer for one year at a small company, mostly doing interviews with business leaders, CEOs, and SMEs. A year later I went on to a different small company in Singapore, to get agency experience, and was in charge of running interviews for print publications for a few years.

After a few years of working, I realized that just because I like writing fiction and stories does not mean I like writing for businesses and doing things like annual reports. There’s nothing wrong with doing that type of writing — it’s just not for me. And so in June 2019, I resigned.

What had you planned to do next?

I wanted to take a sabbatical, so I planned to take about a year off from 2019 to 2020. In the second half of 2019, I went travelling to Taiwan, Japan, and Australia. In early 2020 I was planning on going to Europe as well and I distinctly remember looking for flights and wondering if I should book because there was a lot of news about a ‘virus’.

It was very lucky I didn’t, because I would probably still be stuck in Europe, wasting a lot of money trying to survive in a lockdown in a foreign country!

Wow, that would be quite something to try and to get home in a pandemic and arrive without a job into a global lockdown. What did you do instead of travelling?

I knew I had to decide what I was going to do with my career, but in the interim, I tried looking for writing jobs, and freelance work, which didn’t go very well. I spent several months unemployed.

What hit me through this process was how much I didn’t look forward to the job interviews or the writing work. When I got interviews I knew I didn’t want to do the actual job and I think that’s the impression I was giving people. Maybe my disposition was coming off as some guy who hates what he does!

So I decided to think some more about things. Thankfully I do have a friend who is a UX researcher, and I was able to speak with him about what he does. I had actually already discovered UX by myself, and I thought it seemed all very interesting.

What attracted you to it?

I really like how user-centric it seemed. It’s all about something you’re creating, but you’re constantly going back to the user for feedback. I used to feel frustrated simply writing about other people’s products. Someone has done something great and all I am is the one writing to tell people about it. I’m just the marketer, the communications guy. I wanted to also be the person building something and creating the products myself.

I know in my heart I’m a creative person and that’s why I like stories: they’re about creating something from scratch. Obviously, this is different from UX, but it has the same creative nugget.

Was it a big decision to go back to study?

Yes — it felt very risky for me because I had no idea it would actually work out. But I talked to my friend about it and he told me a bit more about the industry, which made me comfortable enough to decide to jump in and take the risk.

How did you feel when you were accepted into the course?

I felt relief because at that point I had been unemployed for a little over a year. It was a relief to just get into the course and know I would be doing something. If you’re studying, you’re doing something with your career — you’re improving yourself.

I knew the UX course would give me six months (a kind of grace period) to try and excel within a learning space. I could choose not to worry about getting a job while I was studying and so I decided to put it out of my mind until the course finished.

You had mentioned earlier you spent some time unemployed. How did that experience affect your outlook?

My confidence was pretty shot! I also had no idea if I would truly like UX or even be good at it. I was still questioning what I was going to do and knew there was a decent possibility that I was going to have to go back into writing or have to find another career path if I didn’t truly like UX. But then I got the confidence you get when you start learning.

The first few months were a bit shaky and I was still not sure about things. But after a while, I felt like I was doing well — or at least not doing that badly out of a class of 30 people! That feeling, and positive instructor feedback, really made a difference. If you’re in a course or a university and you start learning, it can feel like there are small wins each week, which in turn makes you feel like a bit of a winner! It (mostly) helps to keep the larger self-esteem issues at bay, and while it doesn’t get rid of them completely, it gives you something to focus on.

I remember my confidence really went up in the last three months, and that’s when I felt like I was really prepared for the world of work. That I was ready to do this, and at a place where I wanted to go out and get a job.

What did you learn about the ‘real world’ in your course?

Well, the instructors really know what they’re talking about! I was learning about things that were being used in real life. I had been afraid the course might be a bit outdated, or they might teach people things you end up not using.

I also got to know that companies are not just looking at your experience and the university you went to — they’re looking at you. Have you done any courses outside of what you know? Are you self-motivated to learn? I feel the culture has shifted a lot in terms of looking at traditional degree programs. I think a lot of people now value lifelong learning. Those six months that I was able to dedicate myself to learning and succeeding in it means something to employers.

How did you find the job you’re now in?

It’s an interesting story. I applied for a job on LinkedIn, at a company that had posted for a position called ‘Associate Experience Designer’. They got back to me the very next day to interview and told me it was in part because of my content background. Apparently, they had been struggling to find a designer who had content writing experience, because it’s an unusual skill set to combine.

I remember thinking: this is too good to be true! It’s so rare that you find a job role that is exactly what you offer. And that taught me that skills are transferable. This is one of the key pieces of advice I would give future students who are changing careers: don’t throw your previous skills away. Try to see how you might be able to integrate them into your mix because you never know what is out there.

I’m very happy with everything that’s happened. I’m happy with the way my career is going, to be learning new things, and being productive.