Please tell us a little bit about yourself! Where do you work and what is your title?
I’m currently working at the University of Chicago at their Center for Data Science and Public Policy as Senior Project Manager. We focus on projects where we can make an impact for social good. Over the summer we bring in about 40 fellows who are masters and PhD students to work on 12 projects in partnership with non-profits and government agencies. And throughout the year we work on a smaller group of projects geared towards where we can use data science for positive social impact.
What did your career path look like, and how did you first get into UX?
I’ve always said I like computers a lot, but like people a whole lot more, and have always been fascinated by the way technology is changing so fast, and that’s changing the way we interact with one another.
I graduated from UIUC in 2008 with a degree in General Engineering. One semester I interned at BJC Health Center in St Louis, and did everything from preparing Human Factors modules for their Six Sigma Blackbelt course, to working with their data group to see that some doctors are keeping some patients too long to collect additional insurance money. It turns out being in a hospital is really bad for you because of exposure, so extra nights in the hospital are really dangerous. And doctors would put in orders for x-rays at 4:59pm instead of early in the morning and force patients to stay longer.
I also did an internship at the Accenture Technology Lab. I was doing a lot of prototyping and coding in Flex (which is funny now) and doing a lot of front-end development to build demos that we could show to different partners to demonstrate solutions and value for clients. So that was cool, I got to work at Shell, and at Dupont, and at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
That was an amazing project, we built this 10 foot wall based on artwork the museum had on rent from the Louvre to help bring them a lot of press and bring people back to the permanent exhibits rather than the temporary ones. There was this big physical interface and we had to make sure we were putting buttons at a height that both children and adults could interact with, as well as adults in wheelchairs, so solving some of those kinds of problems was really engaging and exciting.
I left Accenture after 3 and a half years and went to work for the Ounce of Protection Fund in their IT department. They’re an early childhood education nonprofit that does everything from running a preschool on south side of Chicago to advising a network of preschools around the country called Educare.
After that I was the Product Manager at GiveForward. I was there for about a year and a half, and got to work on public facing technology. At Accenture it was lots of internal tools, things no one ever saw unless you worked there. So this was cool because it was public and we were making a positive social impact in terms of helping people raise money for loved ones.
What does a typical day for you look like?
A typical day is lots of conference calls with different clients, talking to different police departments to figure out what systems they have in place, what their problems are, how they’re capturing data, and how they use that data, what kinds of interpretations they’re making on the data they have, and how we can provide insights in a more consumable format.
I also work with the EPA to prioritize which facilities to inspect, because they have so many inspections they do in a given year. We help them figure out which facilities are likely to have a violation, which help them prevent harm to the environment.
So at any given point I have calls with different police departments, the EPA, the city of Cincinnati, and scoping out our summer fellowship projects to identify what problems different agencies might have. We’re using a lot of the top business practices for data science and throwing those methodologies at social impact problems.
Because we’re at the University of Chicago we work with lots of post-docs from around the world, and have lots of detailed conversations about data science that I have them explain what they’re talking about so that we can explain it better to our clients. I’ll say, “Please explain this again, but break it down a little bit more.”
“DESIGNATION really resonated because I think UX is so important. So the more people we have with these skills, the better.”
How did you first get involved with DESIGNATION?
[DESIGNATION co-founder] Aaron found me on LinkedIn, I think, and it just sounded really interesting. It really resonated with me in that UX is such a vast field. Between research, front-end development and graphic design, you meet so many people, and I think UX is so important. So the more people we have with these skills, the better, because your students are not always necessarily going into traditional UX jobs. A lot of the non-profits we work with need someone with a UX background, who can think about information architecture, think about front-end development, all these different components.
What does mentorship mean to you, and why is it important?
I think a mentor is someone with whom you can have both an emotional and social experience, as well as a technical one. It could be both social and technical in one person, but not always. For someone who is trying to figure out, “What am I going to do with my career?”, it’s great to have someone who can say, “I was there once too.”
Networking is also a huge part of it. I always say, “Use my LinkedIn. If I know someone at a company you want to work at, let me know and I can make an introduction.” That’s how it seems most people get their jobs, through their network.
How many mentees have you had so far?
I’ve had two so far, Sara Legg and Stephanie Martinez.
Sara came and got to see one of the happy hours we did at the Data Science for Social Good fellowship. We got to talk about how excited she is about service design, and I think that’s really interesting because that’s something that in a lot of cases is a very important UX consideration. In the non-profit world there are food banks that it used to be, you got handed a bag of food and that resulted in a fair amount of food waste because people weren’t getting food that they knew how to cook or that met their dietary needs. They figured out if you make the food bank resemble a grocery store it adds a lot of dignity to the experience and people can also manage their own food restrictions. So you wouldn’t think a food bank would need UX, but when you look at service design you realize that’s really important.
Stephanie and I talked a lot over email. She is an adjunct professor down in Hyde Park, so we grabbed coffee at the University of Chicago campus, and talked about what she was interested in. She has a great background in education, so we talked about how UX fits into education, and what kinds of opportunities she should be looking at. There are a lot of education groups that are either charter school networks that have their own software with UX needs, or startups that are doing ed tech. The domain expertise she brings is probably as valuable as the UX/UI skills she has. So I sent her a job posting that sounds interesting this week.
Have you had any really surprising or memorable experience with any of your mentees?
It’s always really interesting to hear from people going into the field for the first time, how they approach their job hunt, and sitting down and brainstorming with them, even though it is not my career. It’s nice to hear what people are thinking about, what they’re agonizing about. In the same way it’s good to have a mentor, it’s also good to have someone else that is going through the same thing you did, it wasn’t just me, that they feel the same as I did a few years ago. So in some ways the mentorship goes both directions.
Do you have any side projects you’re currently working on?
I used to hate that question because in coding everyone has a million projects they do outside of work. I never really had projects like that, I’m not a coder that way, I’m not a designer that way. I do spend my extra energy in non-profit projects. I’m most excited currently about being the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for BreakAway, which is a national non-profit which oversees spring and summer break service learning trips for colleges. They’re all about active citizenship, working with people who are doing something in their day job to pay the bills, but then doing something for social justice or environmentalism. I’m on the board of two other non-profits as well, so those are my side projects.
And finally, what do you think is the future of UX design?
I’m excited to see more people with design thinking experience. I think there will be a shift in the role design plays in these important social problems and how we solve them. Community-based design, and human-centered design and all those things are really emerging as incredibly important. As we expand the people who have that skillset of design thinking, we’ll come up with better and better solutions for problems instead of just creating the next “What’s For Lunch?” app.