Introducing Tech it from me

An advice column on forging your path in the tech industry

This week, I’m excited to introduce a new column: Tech it from me. Here, I’ll answer questions you have about career and creativity in tech.

Having pivoted my career from academia to user research, worked in teeny, tiny startups all the way through to unicorn ones, nourished my side hustle and creative projects while investing in my 9–5, become a mentor and manager myself, I’ve thought a lot about how to find (and keep) the right role, company, project, or opportunity. I’ve also learned that many people share similar questions about entering and navigating the tech industry, particularly those from academic and creative backgrounds. My goal for the column is to share learnings and advice that are specific to each individual scenario and still broadly relevant for others to benefit from, too.

To send in a question, email techitfromximena@gmail.com with your question, name, location, and if you prefer to remain anonymous. Questions will be lightly edited for clarity.

After a career in arts education, curation, and consulting, I recently started a new job in higher ed. Before I began this job, I had undergone a period of intense self-reflection and exploration to determine possible future career paths and had focused on UX design or research as a potential good fit. Then the opportunity to take this job came along, and I decided it was worth pursuing. My question is twofold:

  1. How realistic is it for me to aim to pivot into UX, given where I am currently in my career and given my non-traditional background? In my current role, I’m in middle management at a university and lead a small team, although I’m willing to start in an entry-level position if there are opportunities to advance. But I know that there can be a stigma against middle-aged women making a career pivot, especially if they’re starting back at the bottom, so to speak, and I want to know what is realistic. While I do not have a design degree, my degrees are in a related field (art history), and I can demonstrate a high level of aesthetic judgment given my curatorial background. I am a quick study and pick up technology pretty quickly.
  2. If it is realistic, what would you recommend for skilling up to be competitive? Would you recommend that I pursue a specialized certificate program like General Assembly, or would pursuing my own course of study via self-study and relevant Coursera courses or certificates be recognized as valid? I have access to Adobe Creative Cloud, so I plan on teaching myself Adobe XD.

I’m curious to know what you’ve seen in the teams you’ve worked with and what advice you would share given your own journey.

Signed,

Seeking a Career Pivot

First, congratulations on an impressive career in art history — as an art history PhD dropout myself, I bow down to you for seeing it through and applying your knowledge to the museum world and higher ed. The world needs these institutions and bright minds dedicated to making art and education more accessible to others.

Now, onto your questions. You ask about how realistic it is to make a career pivot at this stage of your career. It is entirely possible — with the right training, resume boosters, connections, hustle, and humility. More on those specifics later, but first, a key question you’ll need to answer: Are you hoping to pivot into a career as a UX Designer or a UX Researcher? You mention an interest in both, but while both functions share the same mission — to create a product that meets real user needs — they rely on different tools and expertise to bring this mission to life. Deciding for yourself whether you are more design or research inclined is your first task, since, especially at larger companies, these roles are entirely distinct (different core responsibilities, requiring unique skill sets, competencies, and trainings). At smaller companies, being a generalist “designer who does research” or “a researcher who designs” may be more common, but even then, employers are typically prioritizing one skill set over the other. For example: they may seek a designer who can do a little bit of research on the side until they’re ready to hire a researcher full time. It’s a stop gap solution but the end game is often specialization.

Here’s the primary difference between a career in UX Design vs. UX Research:

A UX Designer is responsible for creating a useful, usable, and ideally enjoyable product. That could look like contributing to the product strategy (what should this product do and what needs will it meet for people?), look and feel (branding, visual design components and overall system), information architecture (what is the most important information to display and how), interaction (what should users experience when they tap a button), and actually designing the thing. Designers work in prototypes, pixels, mock ups, etc. A good UX Designer will have a solid understanding of their users, and what problem a product is meant to solve for them, usually driven by their partners in UX Research. More on UXD here.

A UX researcher’s job is to understand people and uncover insights about a user group to inform and improve a product, its overall design, and the user’s experience with it. Researchers must learn how to plan, design, and scope studies that will help them get to the bottom of a particular research question. Their primary skills are curiosity, empathy, listening, and storytelling. They work in tools like surveys, remote interviews, card sorts, focus groups, and the like. Design experience is not required or expected, but product sense is (knowing best practices for design patterns, being able to identify intuitive user flows vs. problematic ones, understanding whether a product or feature is necessary or superfluous). More on UXR roles in my primer.

I’m spending time up front to outline these differences because any hiring manager worth their salt will squint if you say you are a designer and researcher. We want to know which you really are — what your core competency is vs. which is a bonus skill set. The generalist path is possible, of course, but it may be tougher. Generalists are hired at smaller companies that need a jack of all trades, and though you’ll learn a lot in this environment, if you want to eventually work in Big Tech, you’ll need to specialize anyway in order to be taken seriously as a candidate. I would prefer you specialize now and get solid training at a company large enough to provide it, which has a clear path in terms of career advancement. Most people really do have a preference between design and research — do you?

With regard to the potential stigma of being a middle-aged woman making a career change, I don’t think this is a showstopper. You have a few commonalities working in your favor. Researchers, for instance, often come from humanities backgrounds, like psychology, anthropology, or even art history, so even though you’re a little late to the party, you’ll fit right in with the proper training. In my experience, many design and research teams skew female; if you believe other women will be more understanding of your career path or if you tend to gravitate toward making female friends, you’ll be in good company. At the same time, your peers will likely be younger (as is the case for most jobs in tech), and depending on the employer you may find you have more happy hour obligations than you’d like. (Ah, youth.) And it must be said that there is ageism in tech, just as there is sexism. That said, the reason I do not see your mid career transition as a show stopper is because the ageism and sexism in the tech industry likely would exist even if you had started a career in the field immediately after college. Sad but true.

OK, assuming you’re up for it and that you’ve identified which path (design vs. research) makes your heart beat faster, let’s talk strategy for making this dream a reality. There are four things you should focus on to get your foot in the door:

I recommend learning some of the basics of design or research, whichever you choose, not just so that you can be more confident in interviews and portfolio reviews, but also as a way to signal your seriousness about making a career pivot. Many job candidates say they want to be a researcher or designer but their resume — empty of training, side projects, or even a blog on the topic — does not tell the same story. I honestly don’t care what training you get, but do something that shows you’re willing to invest time, energy, and maybe money into making this switch. There are many bootcamps, online courses, blogs and the like that can help you get up to speed on the ins and outs of the field. This will also give you the right vocabulary to understand job descriptions (are they looking for a usability researcher or someone who can do foundational and generative work? An interaction designer or a visual designer?), as well as for interviews when the time comes. More here on how to study up.

Candidates who stand out the most have experience, not just coursework, on their resume. This, again, is because it signals to hiring managers that you are serious: Serious enough to volunteer to redo a small business’s website. Serious enough to hustle and consult on a mobile experience a friend is dreaming up. Serious enough to blog about how a product could be better, with realistic recommendations and thoughtful analysis that demonstrate your product chops. You can find small gigs on craigslist for a nominal fee, find ways to volunteer your time and contribute for free in exchange for experience, or boot up the ole laptop and get blogging.

Please do not apply to a job through their website without an “in” to a company. I know it feels efficient to hit apply on a bunch of websites without doing networking legwork, but especially for entry-level roles, your chances of being hired directly from the slush pile are slim. Instead, work your network until you find someone who is willing to put you in touch with a hiring manager, member of a team, or recruiter to help you stand out.

It will not be obvious from your resume why you are interested in design or research; you will have to convincingly draw the connection for others. You want to make it really clear to a hiring manager how your skills from the art world are transferable, and that you are serious about making a career change. For example, when I was switching from the art world to tech, I shared my interest in understanding how visitors explored physical spaces (museum exhibitions, galleries and interactive art installations), and connected this to my interest in understanding how users of mobile apps and websites move through digital spaces (human-computer interaction, user flows, etc.). It worked because (a) it was a true interest of mine (b) I made it very easy for others to see the connection in otherwise seemingly disparate fields by speaking their language.

I hope this helps — good luck!

Have a friend who might find this advice useful? Send it along!

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Have a question yourself? Email techitfromximena@gmail.com with your question, name, location, and if you prefer to remain anonymous.

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Author, Listen Like You Mean It. UX researcher, TWTR, PINS, etc. I write about the intersection of technology + society + personal growth. ximenavengoechea.com