When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I was really into art and creative classes in high school, and I really wanted to do something with art. Initially, I wanted to study photography, and I still think back to this one moment that I knew I didn’t want to study photography. We had Career Day at school, and this photographer was set up, and I thought, “Perfect, I’m gonna go talk to him.” I’m looking through his portfolio and he did weddings and advertising stuff, and I remember this ad. It was like Levi’s or something, all these young people in the back of a truck with their jeans on. He said, “This photo is a composite of this one and this one and I changed the background…” and I thought, “That’s not what I want to do.”
Deciding where you want to go to college and what you want to major in when you’re 18 is crazy. I really didn’t want to go to college when I was 18. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to take some time in-between and figure it out. But my parents thought, if you don’t go right after high school, you’re not going to go. And then my parents were very concerned with my major being a practical application to what I wanted to do when I grew up. You have to know your career path at 18; not only your major, but also directly what that job is going to be that you’re going to get with your major. At the time I kind of hated it, but I think it really helped me.
How did you decide to attend University of Wisconsin-Madison?
I applied to eight schools, kind of all over. I really liked CU-Boulder – I got into their honors college which was really cool. I was really interested in Boston University (Go Terriers!), and then DePaul in Chicago, and U of Wisconsin-Madison. I kind of liked that Madison wasn’t too far away, because I was still dating my high school boyfriend who went to Loyola Chicago(Go Ramblers!). And [Madison] was this hip college town, and it was a Big Ten school, and it was a school people had heard of - that was part of why I went there too.
My older brother went to Yale and I felt so much pressure to go somewhere that had a name; I hated that. I wasn’t the valedictorian like him, and I didn’t have any sports. My mom was always like, “You have to do extracurricular activities so you’re more attractive to colleges,” but I didn’t want to do sports.
How did you choose your major?
I don’t think I declared anything at first, but I took art classes. I think I did maybe say I wanted to do graphic design but [Madison] had this path you had to go through where you have to take this class in order to get into this class in order to get into this class, but I could never get into those classes, so I could never get on that track. I took some really great classes, but they were mostly electives; I was a student radio DJ and I had a great community, but if I wanted to do graphic design, I couldn’t [do it there].
I ended up transferring junior year to an art school in Chicago, Columbia College. Columbia is a commuter school, and it’s just a completely different experience from a Big Ten college. It definitely felt more like vocational school. This was all graphic design, all singularly focused on getting me a job.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
My mom’s friend knew someone who owned a business and needed a graphic designer, and for some reason he hired me. I was working there part-time and going to school. When I graduated, he was like, “You should work here full-time.” When I started working for them, one of the first things they said was, “Teach yourself HTML and CSS.” Being able to code helped my career a lot, especially when I was young. Because being a junior designer is one thing. But being a junior designer who can code is much more valuable.
So I was doing web design and website updates for all these companies. They were all small clients, but I was designing and coding everything for these websites. I was there for 5 years, and thinking back on it, it was a good entrance into the work world.
I left because I wanted to move to San Francisco. I had a friend who lived there, so I quit that job to move to San Francisco. [I didn’t have a job], but I was like, “I’ll move and figure it out.” When I visited San Francisco, I met a guy and he said I could stay with him when I moved, me and my two cats. So I moved in, and you know San Francisco, it was technically a three-bedroom, but I think we had 7 people with one bathroom. The only common area was this tiny kitchen and a hallway.
I found a job in the first month, but my mom was horrified because it was at Kink.com. In San Francisco, people knew who they were, but my mom was like, “My daughter moved to San Francisco and started working for a porn company!” But everyone [there] was so chill, especially coming from Chicago where everyone was so stuffy. The receptionist wasn’t wearing any shoes and the creative director was this long-haired surfer dude. I loved it.
I told my mom that I would work there for a year, and then I would find something else. But that was right around [the time] when the economy tanked and jobs were really hard to come by. They told us at Kink, “Porn is recession-proof. You’ll have a job here.” But in February of 2009, one Monday morning, they laid off 15% of the employees and I was one of them. I was so freaked out. I had never lost a job before. But it ended up being one of the best [things].
I wasn’t unemployed the entire 9 months. I was doing freelance work, but I was so young and I didn’t have the confidence to charge much, so I was doing these websites for nothing. I was like, “Freelancing sucks! You don’t make any money and you have to work so hard and then you have to hound them for money.” So I just wanted a full-time job.
I got a contract with Shutterfly, and I was so excited because I had been partially employed for so long. The whole process of getting [to the office] took like an hour and a half each way – biking, Caltrain, and then biking again. It was a three-month contract and then they were going to hire people, but I was so freaked out that I was going to get fired or that they weren’t going to hire me, so I was looking for other jobs. I took a job with CREDO Mobile. They call designers who can code, “unicorns,” so I was the unicorn that was doing a little bit of everything.
When I was working for CREDO, I applied for a grad program at Academy of Art University. I was kind of feeling like my career was stagnant. I saw the senior designers at CREDO and I was like, “I don’t want to do that, I have to do something else.” I had a roommate who was going back to school for graphic design and I was always looking at her projects and it just seemed interesting to be in school.
I was just taking different classes, and I took a class in UX (User Experience). UX is a fairly new occupation, because when the web was new, people weren’t making complex applications with a back-end; it was just a website. UX was a new need when web applications started coming about with big back-end databases, and mobile apps which are more dynamic. There was no link between the designer and the developers. UX is about the process, the flow, the information architecture.
It’s way more fun than graphic design, honestly. I think for me, I was always really good at math and logic, but I also liked creativity. I feel like UX is really half and half; it’s problem solving. Good UX will not be noticed unless you’re a UX designer looking at it. It’s just easy.
[After two years at CREDO], I put in my 1-month notice because I had decided to move to Portland. I was living with my boyfriend, and we broke up and I couldn’t afford to stay there by myself. My brother was like, “Move to Portland, you can stay on our couch and look for a job.”
There are a lot of creative staffing agencies in Portland, and I had a UX project that I did in school in my portfolio, so I think they just started pitching me as a junior UX designer. I had an interview that I was really excited about. It was a startup and the creative director had worked at Amazon from the beginning and was a UX designer before it was even a thing. I thought this guy would be a great mentor, and I really wanted to work for him. I got a job as a junior UX designer, and was kind of just thrown into the fire right away. I took ownership of a mobile app they were building, and I just thought that’s what UX designers did. But I haven’t built an app start-to-finish since then. Doing that mobile app was really good UX bootcamp, though. I worked there just over a year when I got laid off again.
I had gotten that job through a creative staffing agency, and when they heard that I had gotten laid off, they contacted me immediately and I started getting contract jobs. That was great because it was like, “Do you like them? Do you want to stay longer or not?” It was definitely more challenging in a lot of ways, like getting to know the team, or coming into a project that had already been going on, and hitting the ground running. But confidence goes a long way. It was a lot of fun.
The guy I had been working for before, the Amazon guy, got laid off the same day I did. He got a job at HealthSparq pretty soon after, and he told me they were hiring. I worked as a senior UX designer there for two and a half years, [working on] the app that they make and sell to health insurance companies. It’s similar to Travelocity for healthcare. And now I’m doing remote work for this Spanish company, CMP Group. That’s going to be exciting because it’s a start–to-finish [project] again, where I’m coming in really early on and I’m going to shape the way this thing works.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
That’s a funny question that I’ve never really thought about, but I think the 17-year-old me would freaking love to know that the 35-year-old me was sitting in Barcelona, traveling, taking a remote job.
I think the advice that I’ve given in the past is, even if you have an idea of what you want to do, every small step is a step towards a bigger goal. Even if you take a job and you’re an intern and you’re getting coffee, do it because you’re getting your foot in the door. My job at Kink or my first job doing UX, they didn’t pay me very much, but I got my foot in the door doing UX, which was a great experience and I got great portfolio pieces from that. Those are more connections you’re making, that’s one more thing you can put on your resume.