Illustration of a UX Designer smiling

How (And Why) I Changed Career Three Times Before Settling On UX Design

Anne Higgins

CareerFoundry UX Design mentor Mary Shaw knows what it’s like to make a big life change. In fact, she’s made a few. Earlier in her career Mary made the leap from being a professional touring musician to project manager at a design agency. It was later that she realised UX was her true calling and made the leap again to become a full time UX consultant.

Changing careers

As a career changer herself, Mary can easily relate to her CareerFoundry students. She has known the challenge of maintaining a successful work-life balance whilst also learning the methodologies, theory and best practice of UX design.

There is no single, clear-cut path into the UX industry, as Mary’s extraordinary tale teaches us. Having graduated from college with a Communications degree, Mary spent the late 80s and early 90s as a musician, touring the US, performing solo shows at over 150 campuses and remaining on the road for seven years. Life on the road came to end when Mary met her husband and they decided it was time to settle down.

Jumping off the tour bus and into the world of work Mary tried her hand at project management for a design agency. By 2006 she was a mother and as someone who had worked on dozens of high profile web projects, she felt like she was ready for a challenge which involved working with this technology.

Already working at a large agency, Mary was familiar with hiring Information Architects and UX professionals to complete design research and documentation and through what she had learned about the profession in her recruitment role she realised that this could very well be the job for her.

Getting a taste for UX

So how did Mary discover that UX freelancing was the right career choice for her? It was during her time at the software agency that Mary got her first taste of UX design. Her team were having trouble agreeing on website scopes with their internal client, so Mary started asking questions, drawing boxes and arrows in the meetings and trying to help figure out how to solve the client’s problems.

It was during these meetings that Mary’s epiphany came, as she discovered that what she was doing was essentially “Information Architecture” and there was an entire profession of the same name. Upon realising this she grabbed hold of every book and article she could get her hands on, eager to find out more.

Mary soon realised that books on UX design quickly became outdated soon after publication. However with the rise of online education, as well as UX blogs and sites UX designers can now stay in touch with the latest developments in the tech world as and when they happen:

“Web and app design changes constantly and it’s the only way I’m able to keep up!”, she told us.

A website designed by one of Mary’s former students Raven Veal.

Mary now has over ten years experience running her own UX consultancy. This experience has proved invaluable to her CareerFoundry students and is also a testament to the strength of the industry. For those looking to move into a career in UX Mary has this to say:

“I’ve had no trouble finding work over the last 10 years. What’s missing is the next generation of junior UXers with the knowledge and skills to do a good job”.

Becoming a mentor

Providing the next generation of UX designers with the wisdom they need to succeed has been Mary’s goal since August 2014 when she joined the CareerFoundry family as one of our mentors. Inspired by her own mentors of the past, Mary understands that:

“Mentorship is so very important, especially for someone learning new skills”.

Mary has been lucky enough to have had three mentors of her own throughout the course of her career, people who she strives to meet up with for dinner a few times a year. Feelings of gratitude for all their assistance and career advice have spurred Mary on to become the successful mentor that she is today:

“All three of my mentors have had a tremendous impact on my career, for which I am very grateful”.

Mentors can be found in all kinds of places, Mary’s mentors range from her ex-bosses to one of her early consulting clients. UX designers work with a larger number of different clients and that is what makes working in UX so exciting. Meeting new people, discovering new solutions to problems and being creative! Throughout her UX career Mary has worked alongside large corporations, universities, startups and well-known agencies in New York:

“I really love the variety. There’s always something new to work on”.

The multifaceted nature of the UX industry means that a day in the life of a UX designer is never a dull one! Your day will differ depending on whether you are working in a corporate environment, at an agency, or freelance, as well as what type of product you are working on. Mary reveals that her current focus is on designing responsive websites, so she could be doing any of the following activities on a given day:

  • Conducting stakeholder interviews
  • Reviewing client Google Analytics
  • Doing user research (creating and launching surveys)
  • Doing competitive analysis
  • Creating user personas and mental models
  • Attending client meetings (either in person or by phone/Skype)
  • Conducting Whiteboard/brainstorming/sketching sessions
  • Creating sitemaps/wireframes
  • Conducting user testing
  • Creating clickable prototypes
  • Writing project proposals

Mary was really impressed with the CareerFoundry UX Design curriculum when she first read it, and her real life experience ties in well with the course content which is perfect for when she has to guide her students through it.

Working with CareerFoundry students

During her time as a mentor one of the most important lessons Mary has learnt is the importance of setting realistic goals with her CareerFoundry students. Starting a new online course can be intimidating, especially if it is in unknown territory, so Mary tries to “encourage students not to be so hard on themselves - it is OK not to know everything!** ”** A lot of the students on the CareerFoundry courses have full time jobs and family responsibilities, something Mary herself is familiar with.

A website designed by one of Mary’s former students Raven Veal.

Understanding that a work-life balance is important and that studying on top of daily commitments is a lot to manage means that Mary can assist CareerFoundry students in studying at a reasonable pace and complete the course comfortably:

“I work with students to set realistic goals in between Skype calls. It is really important to integrate the courses into all other aspects of their lives”.

Mary’s success as a mentor is mirrored by the success of her students. Raven Veal, Mary’s student with CareerFoundry in 2015, is now working as a UX Research Assistant at UserTesting in California.

What makes Mary such an inspirational mentor is the advice that she giver her mentees, advice that includes being “honest, dependable and do what you say you’re going to do”. She stresses the need to:

“Communicate clearly, do good work, and always ask questions if you don’t understand.”

What is clear when speaking with Mary is not only her passion for UX, but also her deep love of teaching others. She speaks passionately of the “great privilege of helping students learn and develop new skills.” At CareerFoundry we are always thrilled when we manage to find mentors who have a deep felt desire to improve the lives of others and hand down their knowledge. Mary exemplifies this wonderfully when she states:

“I love teaching and giving back to the industry that has given me so much.”

What You Should Do Now

  1. If you’d like a step-by-step intro to find out if UX design is right for you - sign up here for our free 7-day UX short course.
  2. If you are interested in becoming a UX Designer check out our UX design course (you'll learn the essential skills employers need).
  3. If you’d like to speak to an expert Career Advisor for free about how you can really get a new job in tech - connect with us here.

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Anne Higgins

Anne Higgins

Contributer to the CareerFoundry Blog

Anne is a Mentor Experience Specialist at CareerFoundry. Originally from London, she spent many years living and working in South East Asia. She loves vintage clothes, writing about magical creatures and cycling around Berlin.