The Long and Winding Road

 One of my favorite things to do at this point in my career is to help others looking to get into the field as new researchers, whether they are transferring from another career or freshly minted out of undergrad. It's energizing to feel the passion of someone experiencing a new beginning. 

For the next several blog posts, I will consolidate my experience and add updated resources for jobs, tips and tricks, and anything else that may seem useful. 

A long and winding trail in Portland, Oregon

My (abbreviated) story

“Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” - John Lennon

It was 15 years after leaving college. I was on my third or fourth career. My boss had published a book on “cuss control” and people thought it was funny to call our office and swear at someone. That someone was me. I did not write or publish a said book, and I had enough. But what to do? This was a turning point many years in the making, but first, a bit of back story.

My first career was in theater working in the costume department (That‘s probably another book). I did a little design, a lot of sewing other people’s designs and a lot of managing the wardrobe during the production. Theater is by far one of the most enjoyable jobs a person can have, but three things got in my way: 1) I wasn't able to get a lot in the way of design work, 2) wardrobe work was physically exhausting (imagine carrying heavy historical dresses) and 3) it didn't have a salary that was a match for me longterm.

Working in theater had always been my dream, but being able to pay rent became more and more important, less of a dream and more of an adult reality. As theater jobs go, I was doing ok, with a year-round job and health insurance, but I wasn't designing many costumes. About seven years into that career, I was offered $100 to design a show. Sadly, that included both the costume budget and my “salary.” I had hit a dead-end and I needed to do something else. Thankfully, my background was a launching pad for what was next, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

While working in theater, I also started what we now call a “side hustle” where I designed and sold clothing for people with a disability. People for whom “off the rack” clothing really didn’t work and needed either custom items or alterations to feel and look good and be able to dress and undress themselves. For 15 years, this was a true passion project, but I never took it to scale. Working one on one was incredibly rewarding, solving a dressing challenge for each individual, but again, it was not financially sustainable on its own.

Rather out of the blue, one day I heard from a former colleague that I had worked with at a local children’s museum. Her husband worked for an industrial design firm and they needed someone to sew some prototypes, or samples, of a product they were considering for production. Could I help? Since I was already selling one-of-a-kind garments, and had done a small manufacturing run, I figured this work wouldn’t be too much of a leap.

At the same time, another colleague from that museum reached out and he was now running an education department at a children’s zoo. Would I be interested in designing some costumes for a new exhibit?

I did some math and realized that it was do or die time. I had to jump, take a leap of faith and focus on what I loved. I gave notice at the PR company and dove into running my first of several consulting companies.

What I didn’t know, was that I would be exposed to a career path I had never heard about that perfectly married my left and right brain interests. Yes, I liked art and design, but yes, I also like structure and guidelines. Solving problems gets me up in the morning, I love it.

As it happened, the request for fabric prototypes came from none other than the design powerhouse IDEO. At the time, that name meant nothing to me, yet now I am eternally grateful for learning about the fascinating career of industrial design and design research.

While I was teaching their staff about the ins and outs of sewing with neoprene and the many densities of Cordura, they were exposing me to in-home research, and terminology like, ”parting lines,” which at the time meant very little to me.

I became fascinated by this career path and needed to figure out how to do more of it. My passion for soft goods, things made out of fabric, got me in the door but it seemed that continuing on this career path would require additional education.

Inside, I’ve always felt that I was a designer and artist. The idea of designing products and experiences that could help people was incredibly enticing. But, before jumping into graduate school with both feet, I took some courses locally (Chicago) at Columbia college in industrial design and then enrolled in a certificate course (Archeworks) where I got to learn more about architecture, research, design and sustainability as well as working with multidisciplinary teams on complex problems.

Throughout all of this, I still had a long-term plan to continue on the path of design. These courses proved to me that I wanted to learn more. After visiting and applying to several schools, I got accepted into the industrial design program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Going to an engineering school for an industrial design degree may seem counterintuitive, but I also had a deep fascination with technology and hoped to marry my love of textiles and technology.

Georgia Tech was a great choice for school. I got to spend time with some fascinating and smart people exploring further how products and technology impact our worlds and how people interact with those products and technology. In retrospect, I think it’s fair to say I was an “okay” designer. Good ideas, and a mediocre manifestation of those ideas. My breaking point came as I struggled through a class in Solid Works, a software program critical for success if you are going to be an industrial designer in the 21st century.

At about that time, I also had a revelatory conversation with a fellow graduate student. If memory serves, which honestly it may or may not, it was some late-night conversation where we were writing a white paper for a conference about a project we had been working on. I was likely praising him for his technical expertise and bemoaning my lack thereof when he explained that I also had a special skill. “You can talk to people.” What? My mind reeled. That’s a skill? It’s such a soft skill. It's a skill they don't teach you in school. It’s not science or engineering. It’s not something that has an answer but, he most definitely explained to me, it is absolutely a special skill.

Much like an undergraduate career, a graduate career is as much about learning a special skill set as it is about finding or re-finding yourself. For me, this was one of several pivotal moments in not only planning my career but understanding where I could add value to the process and the world.

He went on to explain how talking with people was difficult for him, and often uncomfortable. He valued people’s insights but was much more comfortable soldering connections and coding Arduino boards than talking with people. How great! I was much more comfortable talking to people than soldering connections and coding Arduino boards. The importance of a multidisciplinary team was never clearer to me than it was at this moment.

When it was time to look for work, I turned, of course, to my network. I asked professors for referrals and talked to colleagues I'd met along the way.

My goal was always to work at the cross-section of healthcare and technology. With a few select cities in mind (Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Phoenix and the west coast...), I looked for opportunities. A graduate advisor in the HCI department recommended reaching out to a colleague at Intel.

Here's where the humility set in. I was 37 and graduating from grad school and I was offered an internship. It was an internship with a fascinating Digital Health team in Portland. Although nowhere in my internal script was I taking an internship after school, it was a great opportunity in a city that seemed like a great fit. If it worked out, it could be a full-time position. After a phone interview or two, I was suddenly on my way to Portland to start my new career! And yes, I did get that elusive first full-time gig after my internship.

Although the job of UX Researcher had not yet crystallized in my mind, and hadn't quite gotten the uptake it has now, I was on a team of designers, anthropologists, researchers and engineers. It was a quick match to find my home as a design researcher.

Of course, landing at Intel was just the beginning of this career. From there, I went on to other fascinating opportunities working on product teams conducting research to inform the design of hardware, software and experiences at companies like Intel, Providence Health Care, Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield/Cambia Health, Dexcom. More to come at a later date on these experiences, the conundrum of the job titles and how to move forward in your design research career.

I feel so lucky to have followed my childhood dreams, to see them through to working in theater, but also to have new and interesting opportunities arise that gave me a career path that continues to challenge, excite and surprise me every day.


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