TL;DR: Started career as a journalist, failed, became a full-time employed homeless person, worked my way up to software engineer, digital signage developer, team lead, and eventually UX Engineer. I love what I do, and I’m excited to help others and learn more myself.
My UX Story is a rather meandering one. For the sake of brevity, I’ll try to keep it simple.
In college, I studied editorial journalism, which had a layout and design component, but although I found those aspects entertaining, my true love was sports journalism. I ended up with an internship with an NFL club, and felt pretty good about finding gainful journalism-related employment. For a number of non-academic reasons not worth going into here, I wasn’t able to continue on at school, but still felt pretty good about my chances.
So I applied and I waited. And waited. And waited. The call to the big leagues, so to speak, never came. When the recession hit in '08, not only was I not employed in the journalism world, I wasn’t employed at all. Like so many at that time, I took whatever job I could to make ends meet, latching on with a credit card call center.
I met a girl who quickly decided to move to another state. Being a headstrong youngin’, I decided to follow her. I was able to switch to another call center and keep my job, but I wasn’t able to make a suitable deposit on even the worst apartment in the stabbiest part of town. I found myself in a really weird class-- the working homeless. I lived out of my car, showered at the gym, worked 60 hour weeks, and had a girlfriend that knew nothing of how bad my situation was.
When my dad passed in the midst of all of this, I felt that it was time to take decisive action to change my situation.
Since I was in my teens, I had an interest in web design and development, but it was always little more than a passing hobby. Sometimes I’d take one-off builds for friends or family to get a website up and running, but to say that I dabbled would have been an overstatement.
At my job in the call center, though, I recognized an opportunity.
The biggest problem facing all of our reps is that it was so damn difficult to find the right information. In such a compliance-heavy world as credit and banking, having access to the right regulatory information and process compliance workflows was key. We had an internal communications website that was built with Microsoft Frontpage back in 2004. As new information came in, the website had been cobbled together in a mishmash of incomprehensible, buried spiderweb of links. Even the pieces that we used most often were impossibly buried to find.
Once again, I brought out my old project as the starting point for a major overhaul of our internal website. I eventually pitched the idea to my company’s C-Level management, who all universally loved it. I was promoted into a management training program and charged with getting my new design up-and-running. While in the program, I was offered a position as a software engineer within the company, and I jumped it. This would be my break, my chance to finally earn a true middle-class income and have some upward mobility.
Sadly, things didn’t work out in this position. While my company was eager to have me in the position to continue to work on my project, my manager would have none of it. I was put in charge of maintaining servers and back end processes surrounding submitting credit data to our banking partners, an interesting choice as I had no experience in infrastructure or the languages required to be truly successful. I was still able to work on my pet project, but it was made clear to me that it was a sideshow compared to my “real” work.
Once again, however, I found myself looking for problems without a solution and working independently to pitch a fix. One of the biggest issues we were facing was a lack of business intelligence when it came to what our representatives were actually talking about with customers who called in. Our VRU (the automated system that routes customers to representatives) was able to capture some information, but nobody had any idea if it was accurate.
In order to solve the problem, I built a PHP and MySQL based site that allowed our reps to quickly record the purpose of each call they received, something which required a lot of UI and UX work to ensure that the system was both intuitive, easy, and quick. We ended up capturing about 400,000 lines worth of data very quickly, which gave us an excellent dataset for analysis.
About this same time, the first version of our new site, based on my design, was finally released.
Between the easier-to-find information, a few other small tools I had built to increase efficiency, and more efficient call handling due to analysis on the business intelligence project I helmed, my company was able to shave around 30 seconds off of each call. In the call center industry, such a leap is unheard of. If you find a way to save 4 seconds off each call, it’s a huge win. It’s hard to put a number on how much money this saved us, but our best estimates were somewhere between $1 million and $7 million within the first year alone, with compounding returns over the coming years.
At the time, I was being paid less than half of the salary of the average software engineer. When I asked for a raise, the answer was a very firm “it’s not in the budget.” I knew it was time to go.
And so I jumped ship, finding work very quickly as permanent contractor to a company that made interactive digital signage. If you’ve ever stayed at a hotel and used a touchscreen sign to find a restaurant nearby, or gotten directions to a conference from a touchscreen, or looked at an airport monitor to find your flight gate, chances are you’ve used one of their products. I was immediately put in charge of the design (both UI and UX) of these signs for major corporations, as well as training our partners on how to use our proprietary software. Huge hotel chains, international humanitarian organizations, hospitals, universities, sports teams, airports, ski resorts. You name it, and I probably developed a sign for it.
A couple of years passed. I was promoted to a team lead and senior sign developer. My job also changed from pure design and development to traveling the country and running workshop for these large corporations. In the span of 3-5 days, we’d design a sign, develop it, and implement it on their systems, all the while training them how to use the software along the way.
While I absolutely loved what I was doing, I couldn’t continue doing it for very long. I had a team I was supposedly managing that I really didn’t know, family that missed me, and a peer group I never saw. I’d be home long enough on the weekends to kiss my wife, do my laundry, re-pack, and leave again. 2 years in, despite my increased responsibilities and capabilities, I never had a raise. I gave my notice, and once again began looking for a new gig.
To my surprise, I was most often contacted about UI/UX jobs. At first I wrote off the idea. In my mind, I was a developer. My code solved problems, dang it. I wasn’t going to give that up.
The more calls that came in for UI/UX jobs, however, the more I began to look into it as a career choice. I was shocked to find out that average salary for a UX Engineer was actually better than it was for a software engineer. As I read more about how companies were leveraging UX to make the web a better place, the more in love with the concept I became.
I also quickly realized that my life had set me up well to be a pretty dang solid UX engineer. My writing career gave me imagination and empathy. My call center career gave me the ability to spot issues and find UX-centric solutions. My digital signage career gave me an amazing amount of practice on hundreds of projects with world-class companies.
I tinkered with my resume a bit, and put out a UX-based version. In a matter of days, I had interviews with multiple companies. Within a couple of weeks, I was hired on with a company that provides services to investment advisors.
I’ve been working here for only a few months, but I couldn’t imagine a better job. I love what I do every day, my coworkers are amazing, talented people, my company treats its employees amazingly well, and I’m in charge of the UX for the organization’s main product.
What do I love about the job? Every day brings something new. I’m facing problems that I never knew existed. I’m learning a lot about presenting tabular data in an easily consumable format. I get to do a lot of fun UX stuff like heat mapping, scripted UX testing, user research, whiteboarding, sketching, and researching web design trends.
In some ways, I’m still very new to the world of UX. In others, I’ve been at it for years. I’m tremendously excited to be here to learn more for myself and to help others along the way. I pride myself on being a great teacher and patient mentor whenever possible, so if I can answer any questions for anyone I’m happy to do so. By no means do I know everything (not even close), but I love to share my expertise when I can. At the same time, I know I’ll have a lot of questions of my own. Thanks in advance for all of your help!
Double thanks for reading most (or all) of this long-winded diatribe. I hope it served as a reminder that good UX engineers can come from any background-- even the guy sleeping in his car at the rest stop off the freeway.
One more thing…
I think it’s worth noting that while moving out of state to chase a girl I knew for only a couple of months was the best terrible mistake I’ve ever made. We’ve been married almost two years now, bought our first house at the end of last year, and plan on starting a family soon.
Sometimes stories have a happy ending. While my story is nowhere near it’s conclusion, it’s nice to know that in the middle of the book our protagonist is doing quite nicely, and has learned never take his blessings for granted.