Computer Science to UX and Back: An Interview with Aubrey Quick

Aubrey Quick came to work with me at Virginia Tech as an undergraduate research assistant and fell in love with user experience. After graduating she came to Virginia Tech to complete a Masters in Human Factors Engineering. When it came time for her to look for a full-time job I was so excited to talk about opportunities for her to join me at Next Century Corporation. She ended up joining us at Next Century as a User Experience Engineer but after two years she realized that she really needed to be home in Michigan. Aubrey now works for another amazing company, CQL Corporation in Michigan where she gets to work on some impressive projects. If that wasn’t enough of a change, Aubrey has also moved back to being a software engineer full time and works from home.

Aubrey is a great example of the many crazy and adventurous places that computing can take you. She is also one of my best friends. She is involved in so many things that we like to compare our to-do lists — she always wins. For this blog she has been kind enough to talk with us about her experiences and I’m sure you’ll see that everyone needs a high five from Aubrey.

What made you get involved in computing?

Laurian Vega’s peer pressure. No, I’m kidding. ;) Between middle school and high school, my family switched from dial up internet to DSL. When we got DSL, we also switched to having a wireless networking. My dad tasked me with setting up the modem and router. When I ran into problems, I had to read the documentation and call customer support. Once I got it set up, there were still periodic issues to troubleshoot. Then when it came time to register for my first year of high school courses, I saw that my school offered a 3-year computer networking program. Since I had enjoyed setting up our simple home networking, I thought I’d enjoy learning more on the topic and signed up for the class.

What did you study in college?

I studied Computer Science at Michigan Tech for my Bachelor Degree. I continued my studies at Virginia Tech where I earned my Master’s in Human Factors Engineering & Ergonomics, with intentions of pairing my degrees to work in User Experience Engineering and/or Human Computer Interaction.

Besides computing, what other things were you interested in when you were younger?

When I was younger, I wanted to be an astronaut or a NASCAR driver, until I realized that both of those jobs had a risk of death on the job. Those are really the only other careers that I ever remember thinking much about. As a side note, I did actually apply to NASA’s Astronaut Candidate Program after my time in grad school, but it turns out that NASA didn’t need any Human Factors Engineers with a background in coding in the International Space Center, or I didn’t fit the other criteria they were looking for.

Aubrey at a workshop adapting toys for kids with disabilities

What are you interested in now that isn’t computing?

Farming! In his book “You Can Farm,” Joel Salatin writes that software developers make terrible farmers. That passage has been turned over in my mind periodically for the past several months since I had read it. What Joel meant, was that software developers tend to be very detail oriented and focused on doing things the right/best way. In contrast, when you farm, sometimes you just have to get things done and keep making forward progress, even if your beets aren’t planted in the optimal soil conditions and next to their ideal plant companions.

At this point, I’m nearing 2 years into my hobby farming adventure. While it is a stark contrast from my day job, I think that’s why I love it so much. It brings contrast and balance to my life. It gets me away from my keyboard, and puts my hands in the dirt…and sometimes, unfortunately, manure. While I would say that so far my experiences have (mostly) been a success, I am still learning lots of lessons. The farming lessons are important and useful, but perhaps more important is the ability to not overthink and overcomplicate things, which is exactly why Joel Salatin warned me that I’d be terrible. At least I (sometimes) know when I’m doing these things to myself, and can make the choice to relax on them.

That brings me to my other main interest which is meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. I’ve been doing yoga for nearly 10 years, for it’s health and fitness benefits. However, over the past year I’ve become increasingly interested in the mental health benefits of yoga, and how I can also use meditation to manage stress and increase my mindfulness and presence in the current moment.

I know you work from home, how is that different from working in an office?

I transitioned to working from home nearly 4 months ago. I was fortunate to have 2 years of working in the office with my team, so I’ve built up relationships with them and figured out the intricacies of our project together with my coworkers. I believe this history has made things infinitely easier for me to work from home. If I need to have a conversation about a certain feature of our software, I know which people have history in that area. It makes it easier to track down information.

I use video conferencing software a lot more. Things like Google Hangouts, Skype, and Room are a frequently used tools, whether I’m joining in on a group meeting or working one-on-one with somebody else on some code. We do a lot of face-to-face chatting there, but also use screen sharing to look at code and website behavior together.

Working from home is a tempting excuse to loose your daily routines. It’s also sometimes a challenge to not work “all the time” or “off hours.” I had no idea that having a daily commute also was as an anchor to structure my entire day around. My biggest struggle has been recreating a schedule that allows me to still do the things I either enjoy or need to do in the morning, like reading, doing yoga, and taking care of my various poultry. It also isn’t as easy to run errands after work, since I no longer have a drive home to stop by places of business.

You have worked in User Experience and Software Engineer. Can you describe both areas and talk about the differences?

When I worked as a User Experience Engineer, I was in charge of creating mockups, which are fancy pictures that look like the existing software, but show how new features and functionality will appear and work. That job was fun, because you got to put yourself in the role of the various different types of users and imagine how they would use the software. Sometimes I even got the opportunity to do some user studies and research, to get actual insight into the real users. I would use this data along with accepted research in the field to make decisions on the appearance and functionality of the software. Creating new features, and then seeing them created by the developers and released out into production for our users to enjoy is a pretty neat feeling.

In contrast, being a Software Engineer is less creative, but has more of a technical and logical mindset. I enjoy being presented with a certain challenge — how to fix a bug, or what is the best way to implement a new feature. This creates a puzzle, which I can use code and other technologies to solve, in order to benefit the customers and the users of the websites that I work on. I enjoy digging around in the code, testing various use cases, and weighing the options of different solutions. In a way, I am still being creative in the way that I create solutions, but it is not creative in a “design” sense.

Both jobs have allowed me to work in a software company, to interact with various types of people, like Project Managers, Customers, and Developers. As a general rule, the culture at software companies is pretty unique. They tend to be more laid back and flexible. Many companies have a relaxed dress code, flexible work schedules, and some even have ping pong tables in the office!

Aubrey ice climbing up a frozen waterfall with colleagues from work

Does the work you do impact your community or society?

I am really excited about the work that I do at CQL. We get to work with a lot of amazing local and international companies. We are always focused on finding the right solution and helping our customers get the best software for their needs. We also work with all sorts of people, who always seem to know the right person for the job, even if we have to refer customers to somebody else. There is this amazing network of talented individuals that we are part of, and to be a piece of that network feels great.

CQL is also involved in many other activities which benefit our community, such as Girls Who Code, BitCamp, Kid’s Food Basket, TedX GR, local dev groups and conferences, mentoring college students, and several more groups and events.

What has or does inspire you in computing?

I often find inspiration in our youth. Unfortunately, I feel like there is a lot of negativity focused on “the next generation,” but I have been seeing a lot of smart, motivated, and amazing young programmers. I have been so fortunate to be exposed to these students through programs like Girls Who Code, FIRST Robotics, NCWIT’s Aspirations in Computing Awards, and speaking at local schools.

You have a Masters in Human-Factors Engineer. How does that help you in your job?

While I do not do any formal design work in my current position, that are a few ways that having this degree (and prior work experience) do help me out.

  1. Often when I am developing code for projects I am given comps or mockups either from a brand’s design agency or from our internal design team. However, there are time when no comps are available. When this happens, it helps to know the basic principles of Human Computer Interaction. This allows me to make sound judgement calls, while putting myself into the user’s position. It also helps me be able to ask more specific design related questions of our customers, which sometimes a few well asked questions can be enough information for me to develop the desired interface, without needing high fidelity comps.
  2. The other time I find my background helpful is when I am testing code that others have written. When I’m testing code, it helps to think of all the various use cases. Being familiar with different user types and how to think like those users is helpful for creating test cases. Additionally, sometimes a new feature might functionally be okay, but is off either visually or the workflow is awkward. These are all important and useful things to help improve the state of a piece of software.

You did a research internship when you were an undergrad. What are the benefits of doing a research internship when studying in college?

When I was working on my Bachelor’s degree, I did a summer research program in Human-Computer Interaction. I’ve mentioned HCI several times already in this interview, but up until my summer research program, I only had a vague idea on what it was. I had never had a class in HCI. I wasn’t familiar with research methodology. I had never been part of a research team, and I certainly wasn’t very exposed to reading or writing of academic journal articles. Looking back, it’s amazing at just how many new things I was exposed to over the course of a few short months.

When I came back to school after a summer being a “real” researcher, I sought out the one professor at my university that had a background in HCI, and started a conversation with him, which lead to an independent study and becoming part of a research team under him.

These two experiences planted the seeds in my mind for doing my own research and the desire to go to grad school. It also opened my mind up to new topics which I was perviously either unaware of or uninterested in. Mostly, before my research experience, I thought of Computer Science being used to write code, but after my research experience I saw a much larger picture which included all of the various groups of people around the world that are doing cutting edge research to push the boundaries of what we can do with technology and how we can better integrate it into the lives of our users.

Additionally, having research experience and exposure to HCI showed me that being a Computer Scientist wouldn’t limit me to a job sitting at a computer writing code all day everyday. At the time, I found that very compelling, and was one of the reasons I continued to study HCI. Although, it is funny that now I do write code all day every day (or at least mostly write code, I do some other technical tasks as well), and I find it very fulfilling.

My favorite picture of Aubrey — her with my oldest at the Smithsonian of Natural History in DC

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