Succeeding as a Designer in Tech: Raquel Breternitz

Our WISE team recently sat down with Raquel Breternitz, a Senior Designer at the Pivotal Labs office in D.C! Raquel talks about her path from design into the technology world, and her work with diversity & inclusion initiatives.

Raquel Breternitz, Senior Designer at the Pivotal Labs
Hey Raquel! Can you tell us a bit about what you do and how you got to where you are today?

I’m a Senior Designer at the Pivotal Labs office in D.C., which means a lot of awesome civic design work! What I think is really cool about Pivotal is their emphasis on pairing and teaching — what that means is that I get to work side by side with a designer from our clients for the full span of a project. Together, we do research, define strategy, sketch wireframes, test ideas, build mockups and work with developers to implement our final designs. Through this process, I’ve been able to teach and to learn a lot of new things.

Before moving to D.C. to work at Pivotal, I worked for IBM Design and IBM Watson in Austin, TX. That’s where I cut my teeth as a designer, and where I learned a lot of my skills in research, design thinking, facilitation, and negotiating user needs with business needs. I got to work on some badass projects, including predictive data modeling, anti-money laundering, financial tech apps, and helping teachers to build strong lessons plans that are aligned with the common-core. (You can see that last one here:

Why did you choose this path?

I got into software design a little bit by accident — in college, I double-majored in Design (in the broader sense, aesthetic problem-solving) and intended to go into typography for literature and magazines, and write design criticism. In studying the history and theory behind design and how it’s evolved, I found myself drawn more and more to the human-centered problem solving aspects of design, which led me to learn about UX, research, and design thinking (as defined by the Stanford D. School and IDEO). I worked for a few startups and took a chance on applying to IBM, and the rest is history. ;)

What extracurriculars are you involved in? What are you passionate about?

I’m motivated by two things, in order: justice, and beauty. I believe in fighting for the underrepresented and underserved. I believe everyone has the right to be their full, authentic selves in their work and in their life, and that any system that stands in the way of that is fundamentally broken. That’s honestly why I do what I do — in my small way, I can help to shape how the world works.

To that end, I’m passionate about digital accessibility, and making sure everyone can have access to the internet and to the software they need to fully participate in our modern world. At Pivotal, I’m one of the leads of our grassroots Diversity & Inclusion team, and I’m helping to establish our LGTBQIA employee resource group.

I’m a bisexual, bilingual, latinx, and a first-generation American with a disability. I truly believe those parts of my identity are an enormous part of why I’m great at my job. They’ve honed my ability to see past face value, my resilience, and my ability to empathize. I’m deeply passionate about bringing more people like me into tech, leadership, and design to help shape what the future looks like.

I’m also a staff writer for Autostraddle, a queer women’s website, and I love reading and writing in general. I honestly may be more passionate about literature than about design, but I happen to be better at the latter.

What has been your most difficult decision and how did you resolve it?

Oh, man. I have agonized deeply over nearly every decision I’ve ever made, but I think the decision to go into design instead of advertising — and instead of going for an English degree — was one of the hardest, and the best, decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve always dreamed of being a great writer and artist, to be clever and make beautiful things. I realized that design was a field where I could be a great storyteller, make things beautiful, and solve big problems that have humans at the center — all in one job. But best of all is that in this job, it pays to be humble and to get help. All great design is collaborative — either with the people who will use it, the people who will build it, other designers who will help create it with you, or (ideally) all of the above. I don’t have to do it on my own.

(Sometimes I still wonder if there’s a universe where I’m writing fiction for the New Yorker and publishing my first novel right about now instead, though.)

Many women have recently been speaking out about sexism in the tech industry. What impact do you think this has had and how can people help to solve the problem?

God, this is such a huge question.

Sexism isn’t something that only hurts women and nonbinary femmes — it hurts everyone. Men are told that the only acceptable emotion is anger and the only acceptable position is one of power, and then we wonder why they so often break out into violence. Sexism is everywhere. It’s systemic. We marinate in it, we grow up learning everything through its filter, and it’s in our reflexes. We have to do hard, ongoing work to unlearn something like that.

I get that this seems like it would suck, and yeah, on one level it does. But on the other hand, it’s deeply freeing, and it empowers you and everyone around you to be real human beings.

For a field that’s so in love with numbers, it seems many tech companies continue to ignore the data. Companies that are helmed by women perform 3 times better than companies predominately ran by men, and yet are given a fraction of the funding. Over and over, we’ve proven how the diversity of teams results in more creative and more effective solutions.

But I am heartened by things like the #MeToo movement. Women are breaking the dam of silence from their experiences and it’s bringing about a sea change. It’s awesome, and it’s not stopping. I think it’s important to continue to create space for this conversation as we take steps to stop these stories from ever repeating.

The key, here, is that diverse teams is not enough — people need to feel included and empowered at work, too.

I see a lot of companies reacting to our “feminist moment” in fear and pushing more mandatory sexual harassment training (or much worse, refusing to hold one-on-ones with female reports). That won’t do anything for you. To change and improve the culture, all you have to do is include us (and you’ll get a lot more benefit from it, too). Hire more women. More than that, promote more women. Pay them enough, help them learn and grow, and treat them like human beings. If you don’t know something, read — and ask.

It’s not hard — anytime you’re unsure, ask yourself, what would I do if this were a young Steve Jobs and I had the opportunity to help him in his career? Consider that, and then do that for the woman in front of you.

The bottom line is that any environment that is healthy, growing, and supportive for women and non-binary femmes will be so for men as well. In fact, when more women join a workforce, wages rise — including for men.

What advice do you have for students who are studying art or non-technical fields and want to break in to the technology industry?

Stay in art school! Finish that english major! If you’re artistic, that ability to find and refine beauty, to see small details and do the work to make something look right is invaluable for the visual design of products. If you’re a writer, product copy is exploding right now. Your ability to tell stories, to synthesize information, to pay attention to small details and use words effectively are hugely useful for user-research and information architecture. A humanities focus is becoming more and more valuable in a tech world that’s had to reckon with the human and ethical consequences of what they’ve done (just look at Facebook).

And if it’s something you’re into, there is such an enormous host of awesome people out there just waiting to teach you how to code. If you’re still in school, try out a coding 101 class. Reach out to someone on twitter, or find a meet-up. Walk yourself through a “hello world” on one of the many online coding sites. If you hit a snag, I promise you, someone else on the internet has too — and has gotten help with it. Go make something! Get it out there! And get it, girl.

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