How I went from a software developer to a UX designer

Illustration by Cindy Rodella

This article is based on the interview with Jessica M., our recent graduate of UX Design Intensive Program we offer. Jessica was a software developer who wanted to become a full-time UX designer. She had to struggle with people’s bias that developers can’t design. (more thoughts on that later) She took a course at ITHAKAI and built a UX portfolio. Now, she works as a full-time Senior UX designer at Oomba.

What did you do before you became a UX designer?

I was a full-time software developer. I developed applications for internal purposes like HR, finance, inventory management and etc.

How did you become interested in UX Design?

When I was working as a developer, I spent six months on building software just to find out users aren’t using it at all. I felt really sad but I wanted to know why. After talking to users, I found out what I built was actually causing more delay. That was the event that triggered me to learn more about a user-centered approach.

When did you first hear the term “user experience design”?

I was just finding out (UX) as I was doing it. Because I was researching on better ways to prove the software that I had originally built. As I continued to research online, I found more and more articles on it. And I started finding books on it. I wanted to find out what made software successful versus not successful.

What made you decide to join our program?

I wanted to know more about what UX was and what all it entailed. So I started looking into different programs. I had read some really good things about ITHAKAI. But I wanted to make sure the program was worth what I was paying for. I also wanted to make sure they were experts who really knew UX. After I talked to an academic advisor, I felt confident about the program and decided to join.

What was your class project and how did it come about?

I did a mobile application where people can find dogs through different rescues. I personally love dogs. I was looking to adopt a dog at one point and the process was so awful. I saw that there was a need for a tool for people to find a dog online.

What did you do to design the app?

I had to reach out to people for survey and interviews. I asked questions about their interests in finding a dog online and their past experiences. I went through the research to define user needs. Going from there, I started to sketch things out, test and iterate through design.

What are some advantages and disadvantage as a developer going into UX?

For disadvantages, it was very difficult for me to make the move from a developer to a designer. People wanted a lot of validation that I actually knew how to design. There is this stigma that developers can’t design things. I think that the stereotype does exist, but just because you are a developer it doesn’t mean that you can’t design. To prove my design skills, my portfolio was hugely important for me.

For advantages, I can design things that are realistic in terms of development time. That does matter to companies because developing software requires a lot of time, money, and energy.

It’s interesting that your disadvantages came from other people’s bias, not from your actual abilities.

I don’t think that it’s very well known that UX isn’t necessarily all about visual design. It’s good to have visual design skills but I don’t think you necessarily need to be good with visual design as a UX researcher, for example.

How is working with developers now that you are a designer?

I love working with developers. My background helped me with communicating my design to developers. It’s nice because they can ask questions. I’m always open, specially if a developer has anything that they want to say or has a question about the design. When I was a developer, I felt like I never really had much of a say in design. I think it’s nice being able to give feedback as a developer.

Is there anything that you learned from the program that’s been helpful at work?

Absolutely. Research is definitely one of those things. Originally, there was this proving process if UX is actually valuable. After getting the education at ITHAKAI, I’ve been able to explain why UX is really valuable through the results. It’s extremely helpful to be able to create prototypes that people can interact on their phone or computer as well. It’s been specially helpful for the developers to see how it looks and how it acts. I also still enjoy doing networking and reaching out to people. That was something that ITHAKAI had stuck with me too.

How was your job searching process like?

It was hard for me to find work that was not development. I applied, I went on some interviews, I went to networking events… But really what came down to was, as I continued to open my life up to different avenues that weren’t just work related, things started to happen. I went to these board game meetups because I wanted to have fun. I met someone there and they introduced me to a CEO of this company who had a very big need (for UX). That’s how I found my job.

That’s incredible. It’s funny that you say that. I just talked to another graduate who found a job in a smilier way. It’s almost like a life’s way of telling you to get out there and have fun.

It’s crazy, right? So I keep trying to remind myself to go out and continue to meet people and have experiences.

Personally, I think I was more obsessed with following the plan and executing it on time. But as I get older, I realized that’s not really how things happen. Now I let myself being drawn to whatever hobbies I have and it seems important somehow.

It is. I’m not certain if there is some positive vibes that gets put out there or whatever. But it is important to continue to have the experiences. For a really long time, it was not like that for me. I was very career-focused, I was very family-focused, but they all had their buckets. And very little of that time went towards me going out and meeting people unless there was something that contributed to those buckets. But it’s really not how it is. Life is a lot more fluid and dynamic. Actually, ever since I let that go, that rigidity, things have been starting to fall into place. It sounds kind of bizarre.

No, that somehow makes perfect sense. And it is also true. It’s definitely something to think about.

So I think I finally understand when people say you have to network. It’s not necessarily about networking to find a job. It’s about going out there and speaking with people because you never know who has a need and what they are going through. But you don’t know those people unless if you find those people and meet them.

Right. I also think there is an attitude that you have. When you try to network for a job, you are on a mission and it’s a lot of pressure for other people too. But when you are having fun and just to meet people to meet people, it’s so natural and there is nothing artificial that confines these conversations.

Did you go through the typical interview process to land the job?

I did go through an interview. I was hesitant in the beginning because I had a very stable development job. I worked from home. There was steady pay coming in.

So I spent one week talking with the CEO and going over the product and another week on my own giving my consulting services for free. I interviewed a lot of different people at the company, including the developers and the product owner, and really took the time and energy to think about whether or not it’s going to be a good fit for me.

Sounds like quite of bit of efforts went into deciphering the job but also the company itself. Would you recommend to job seekers to offer their services for free like you did?

The way I feel about it is, you can’t have too much information and you can’t do too much research. I was at a point of my career where I didn’t just want to take any job. I wanted a job where I can actually make a difference and enjoy my work. So I spent a lot more time and energy doing that for this job.

I realized that it’s about interviewing the company. It’s about whether or not YOU want the position. Previously, I always had interviewed so I could “get the job”. But this time, I decided that I didn’t want to do that anymore.

When you get to a point in your career, you think, “I have value and I’m worth a lot. I can help the company. I want to work for a good company.” I wanted to make sure it’s not going to keep me hours and hours drowning me with lots of work or being unappreciated or any of that other stuff. That matters to me.

Sounds like you turned the tables this time and did things differently.

Yes. It was a really good experience. It’s not really taught at school. But there was something that ITHAKAI taught me about making sure that I actually chose a place that I liked. So I started thinking about, “How am I gonna really know if I like a place?” The truth is, you can’t really know whether or not if this place is good for you until you start working there. That’s why I think it’s so good to do something like that.

If people stop thinking about job searching as just finding “a” job, it give the company less power and empowers you more to find what you want.

What about beginners? You had 6 years of experience, including being a consultant. What can a student do to take control and being empowered?

Confidence is key. And the only way to develop confidence is to continuously improve yourself. I think it’s really important for a student to actually do projects even if it’s free. Working with clients is a whole different ball game than just doing something you are told at school. If you can start thinking for yourself and building a portfolio, you can gain invaluable experiences that will differentiate you in the job market.

Plus, if the company does not hire you, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

I agree. I think it’s all about fit.

It’s that confidence factor again. I think a lot of beginners lack the confidence that they can do the job because they’ve never done it. Doing projects will be always helpful as well as researching and reading constantly. Meeting people is also very important. You’ll be surprised which way they can influence your life.

Any advice for developers interested in UX design?

It’s very important that you have a portfolio you can continue to build on. You can do some work on the side to show you actually put some efforts and thought into the design. That’s going to prove to people that you are willing to do more than just the code.

Any advice for beginners?

Going to class, speaking with people, reading, doing projects for yourself…. These are all ways to enrich your experiences and your knowledge. As a beginner, you are not coming from experience, you are coming from what you know and what you are willing to learn. So be hungry and don’t stop.

By ITHAKAI, UX online bootcamp for career changers. See our program