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.

This week: How can I break into tech from the art world?

  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

Dear Seeking a Career Pivot,

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:

UXD

UXR

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:

Study up.

Practice.

Network.

Hone your story.

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.

Oh, and if you haven’t already, don’t forget to VOTE!

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