Knowing What You Don’t Know: A Strategy for Upgrading Your UX Career

It was about five years ago, when thinking of ways to upgrade my career, that I first came upon the idea of teaching. One of the areas where I lacked solid experience was in both public speaking, presentation skills, and just generally talking about what I do when providing solutions within a user-centered design context as a full-stack developer. Teaching seemed like a good way to remedy these deficits on my résumé, but there were definitely some impediments to overcome before I could get started.

The seed was first planted by a few friends, who are teachers, who have suggested to me over the years that I would make a decent teacher. I’ve thought to myself, maybe so, but there was no way I could actually teach a programming class. Maybe one of my side interests — a history class perhaps? But not programming. After all, I had never actually taken a programming class before. So I was really out of my element and didn’t even know what a programming class would look like.

I was at phase zero of learning a new skill: discovering what one does not know. The only way to move beyond that was to just dive right in and give myself the opportunity to learn the depths of what it was I did not know. I quickly moved on to letting myself be curious. And that I did: articles, videos, and online classes provided me with some insights into what I’d have to learn in order to become an actual programming instructor.

About three months later, in the curiosity phase, I was talking to a colleague about my thoughts on teaching. I wasn’t interested in switching careers. I just wanted to teach a night class of some sort, maybe a weekend workshop, I told him. It was time to dip my toe in the water, I felt.

There were a lot of needs in the market place I could fill. I wasn’t going to start with teaching a 3-credit course on data structures at a university, not with an undergraduate degree in political science and no formal training in the field, but there are plenty of people out there wishing to learn how to manage a CMS instance for their business, or are themselves looking to learn the basics of web development. Surely, I could handle something like that, I told him.

I had established for myself what exactly I did not know, did what I could to remedy that by letting myself be curious, and now I moved on to the next phase of upgrading my career: communicating with social and professional connectors who would be willing to help me with my aspirations.

As it turned out, that conversation lead to a phone call about a month later, because that’s the sort of thing that happens when you understand that your professional network is your greatest professional asset. My colleague was asked to teach a programming class himself a few weeks after our conversation, but he was uninterested, and he passed my name along.

Another phone call lead to a meeting at a co-working space in Philadelphia. A short week later I was standing in front of five adults who were interested in learning the fundamentals of HTML and CSS. I had reached yet another phase of learning a new skill: just doing it, even if failure is a possibility.

I am not going to lie: I was terrified. I had to fill three hours of time on my first night. As a UX engineer, I very rarely have to speak in front of groups, and if I do, it is usually for about 2 or 3 minutes at a time, and it is usually with people I already know. By this point in my life I had spent precisely ZERO minutes teaching and now I was going to have to fill up a 180 minute class and do so in a credible manner.

My goal for the first evening was to simply not embarrass myself. The students filtered in and I waited for the second hand on the clock to reach 12, signifying the top of the hour, and then it was time to begin.

I was paralyzed.

Sheer. Abject. Terror.

I watched the second hand very slowly tick off time. Five seconds passed, then 10, then 15 seconds. I contemplated just walking out the door as those moments streamed by. I remember thinking, “just say something.”

So I started to speak. I introduced myself, which seemed like the most rational thing to do. I started to talk about my background and qualifications in the field. Then I settled into talking about the course syllabus. The first time I looked up at the clock nearly 20 minutes had passed. I hit the next bullet point on my lesson plan at the 45 minute mark, as I had planned, and we were working on a “Hello, world!” web page at minute 60. At the 180 minute mark, we wrapped up, and they were none-the-wiser that this had been my first time teaching a class — any class.

Getting through that first class, and shepherding these students through the end of their final project, earned me something very important that I would be able to carry with me long-term: options.

The technical skills you have on your résumé are not just a set of a bullet points, they are options. Your colleagues are not just people you have a drink with now and then, or talk industry gossip with, they are options. Your career is not a set of events and past-tense experiences, your career is options.

Now, I’m not going to say one shouldn’t plan in life. But you can’t get too hung up on concrete specific plans. Why? Because we all know that the universe has a funny way of denying us the ability to execute on plans. But the universe can’t take away options. Given the speed and nimbleness required to work in technology, I have never come to doubt this: certainty disappoints. And options are leverage. Use them.

When an unsolicited phone call came six months later, I was able to say ‘yes’ to teaching a more advanced class in a continuing education program at an actual, honest-to-goodness university. A few years later, and I now have a couple hundred hours of teaching to my credit.

As a person who has re-invented himself a few times throughout his career, I have developed a strategy that has evolved into the present form when seeking to learn a new skill:

Phase 0: Determine what you don’t know

Phase 1: Be curious

Phase 2: Let your professional associates help you

Phase 3: Just do it

Phase 4: Acquire Options

Phase 5: Repeat

These experiences have expanded my speaking and presentation skills, as was the original intention. I now present my ideas and thoughts on user-centered design nationally and internationally. Having the confidence and skills to speak to researchers, as a practitioner, has opened up opportunities that I wasn’t even originally seeking, and has added to my circle of professional contacts. Options beget options.

I still have no plans to switch careers. But I am not going to let these skills I have acquired go to waste, so I am looking to leverage what I have learned and extend my reach beyond the class room. I am excited about the possibility that online learning presents and I am wondering what options I may offer this niche, and what options this niche may offer me.

But, before I can start seeking new options, I have to ask myself one simple question: what don’t I know?