Women Who Work: In Product Design
Today, I'm excited to share the second installment of Women Who Work. As I explained in my first Women Who Work post, the purpose of this series is to be a place for both women (and men) to explore and learn about different career paths, get insight from early careerists killing it in their respective fields and highlight amazing women who I respect greatly!
Julie is one of my oldest friends from elementary school days. She has always challenged me with new perspectives and her drive for excellence and innovation has always inspired me. Julie is one of those people that you knew would be highly successful and has always seemed to have a clear career trajectory (We all knew Julie would end up in some kind of tech industry!). Hunter and I recently went to visit Julie and her fiance, Kevin, in Pittsburgh and it was eye-opening to see a new city and her innovative work space.
Thank you and Welcome, Julie!
My family has always been interested in technology; I grew up in the emergence of the internet and personal computers, in a household with parents who followed the newest technology trends.
My older brother always knew that he wanted to be a software engineer. I knew that I also wanted to do something in technology, but I found people more interesting than a software engineer would. I also kept leaning toward projects that had visual aspects to it, like redesigning my high school’s website (which I still can’t believe they let me do).
I was very lucky to have a mom who was so interested in my college choice that she did a lot of research for me. She saw my interest in this mesh of technology and people and design, and found departments at schools throughout the country that seemed similar to that, like industrial psychology at Virginia Tech, engineering psychology at Tufts, and Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. After reading a few books on the subject and gaining exposure to it at an engineering summer camp at Virginia Tech, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.
What core skills and subjects did you enjoy in school and college that apply to your profession?
Some of the hardest courses I took were Intro to Programming and Data Structures. They absolutely kicked my butt. But they also taught me the fundamentals of programming and data storage, helping me to understanding the technical constraints around things that I design. I think everyone should learn how to program to understand that technology is not inherently intimidating.
I also loved all the psychology courses I took. Intro to Psychology was so fascinating to me that I taught it as a teaching assistant for the rest of the time I was at CMU. I use the fundamentals I learned about attitude change and perception almost everyday.
I also took a course on The Beatles, which clearly applies to my profession because I listen to them on Spotify all the time while working.
What was it like going to a top engineering and computer science university?
Intense. What I loved most about Carnegie Mellon though was that it’s also a top design university, so it was a really interesting blend of various backgrounds, enabling collaboration with people who think totally differently from you.
Why did you choose to get your Master’s directly after your undergraduate degree?
The program was very short: to get my masters I was able to take just two more semesters and substitute my undergrad senior thesis with a graduate thesis. This made is easier for me to decide to do it, because I also had this itching feeling that having a masters would make it easier for me as a woman to negotiate salaries and gain buy-in on projects.
What internships did you have in college?
I never had an official “internship” — I worked as the only user experience designer at a mobile development agency creating eCommerce sites for companies like Costco, Sephora, and other well-known brands. I was full time during the summers, and continued working part time throughout the school year.
Who has been your biggest mentor?
I also never had a formal “mentor” in the way that is typically talked about — but I have had people who have been particularly influential in my life. My mom was my mentor for guiding me into a particular industry. My former boss and now good friend Jenna has been a mentor in teaching me how to prioritize happiness in life. Erik, another former boss, taught me how to elevate my craft and guided my design work.
Who or what inspires you?
Street art is really inspiring to me. I love the spirit of it; it isn’t filtered — it can show how emotionally rich a community is outside of a curated space. That said, seeing modern works at the MoMA is also a pretty inspiring experience to me.
Traveling is also important for inspiration. Seeing how other people live in the world helps to expand my mind when creating new things. I love to observe random patterns, colors, and forms I come across in the cities and nature I’m in.
Describe your first job (post-grad). What were your biggest takeaways?
My first job after college was designing the mobile eCommerce site for a well-known retailer. I was a bit of a spitfire at the mobile agency I worked at before, so working at a larger organization taught me the finesse of persuasion and team collaboration. I also learned how much the organizational structure can limit the scope of your work, which was a valuable lesson for finding my next role.
Next, you worked for a startup, what did you learn from that experience? How did it differ from a larger organization?
I’ve worked for three startups, all varying in size and maturity. Large organizations have more structure in place that tells you what your next goal is in order to get promoted. At a small organization, you have to form that goal yourself. Working for start-ups has made me accustomed to rapid change — things evolve rapidly from week to week or even day to day.
A former colleague of mine taught me that when looking for a role, always consider what you want for the scope of your work, how much opportunity for personal and professional growth there is, and compensation. These dimensions will vary at every organization, and which dimensions you lean towards will change over time as you’re gaining experience or seeking a more stable work life. At a startup, you’re most likely going to be high in the scope and growth dimension, but lower in the compensation. At a larger organization, it’s more likely for this to be flipped.
Engineering, computer science and technology are all male dominated industries. What is your perspective as a woman in the industry? Is the playing field evening out? What challenges have you faced?
A large challenge is that the “woman in tech” persona is usually about women engineers, and not women in other technical roles. A lot of people, even women, underestimate my knowledge and abilities when they find out I’m a designer and not an engineer. It can be difficult to start a working relationship with someone who has an implicit negative assumption about you, and it’s only after people start seeing or hearing my work that this changes.
This doesn’t exist as much within the design community, however. I’ve been lucky my design team is fairly balanced between men and women — I’m also lucky that I’m the only white person on the team, so there’s even greater diversity in perspectives.
Describe your average work day and your work environment (I’m picturing snacks galore and open, collaborative workspaces and I’m drooling)
I imagine my workday is similar to many other people’s. On Monday mornings, while drinking my coffee, I sit down at my desk and create a list of things I want to accomplish that week. Then every morning, also while drinking my coffee, I create a list of things I want to accomplish that day. I roughly plan out when I’m going to do things and then get to work, either creating flows, wireframes, or mockups, researching with users, or brainstorming with team members.
My work environment is the typical one you might see at any tech company. There aren’t any offices, so you sit in rows of other desks. This can get loud, so some people steal into various meeting rooms or work from home to get work done. There are snack areas and a cafeteria with lunch, and a big space where the whole company can get together for all hands. I think most people have learned by now that bringing your dog into work can be highly distracting, so there’s only a few pooches around the office.
I hope you all are finding this series as eye-opening and interesting as I am. I love it, because I get to be a reader alongside you for these posts and it is the best to learn more about my closest friends and how they operate in their professional lives!
Comment down below letting me know other industries you would want to learn about in future Women Who Work features!
Kevin, Julie, Hunter & I enjoying a Pittsburgh Pirates game. Go Buccs!