My career is spiraling out of control... Please help! (Beware: Long)
July 31, 2014 8:43 AM   Subscribe

So my career is kind of a disaster and I am not sure what to do about it. This is a bit of a wall of text (because I want to give a lot of context), so thanks to anyone who gets through it.

This is my first AskMF, and it's not actually written by me. I'm posting this on behalf of someone close to me, mostly to anonymize them :) I hope this is acceptable, thanks very much for your understanding.


I work in interaction / user experience / front-end design. I started as a wireframes-only UXer about 7 years ago. I'm really into data visualization, and can code up my own proofs of concept and little art projects. I'd say I'm a functional amateur in Javascript: I can write non-terrible things but I probably don't have the depth or knowledge to really do well in a pure coding interview or position. HTML/CSS I a fine at, particularly preprocessed CSS. My ideal job would be either as a prototyper or as a designer in a studio where designers are contributing directly to the codebase. Or just running my own small studio with my friends ... which is probably my ultimate dream.

My problem has three main strands.

The first is I have become very discouraged in my career over the last few years and my attempts to get somewhere better for the last 9 months or so have pretty firmly ended in failure. I get to the last step in interviews with Prestigious Program, Big Well-Known Company, Small Well-Run Company, and then uniformly founder on the shoals of not being good enough on one dimension (a different one each time). And so I feel like I need to do things to be better, but I am not sure what. I don't even know if the problem is lacking skills or doing a bad job showcasing them or how to find out.

The second main problem is social. I'm a girl and not white, and I have a lot of opinions. It is shitty but that means that where dudes get praised, I get dinged for being "aggressive" or "argumentative," regardless of how politely I put things, even in cases where peers I work closely with, who on the whole like me, think it is bullshit and tell me this unsolicited. This is not going to change. (Seriously, I am not going to grow a whole new personality; I have tried and it doesn't work and frankly I don't think I should have to. My shrink supports this as do my friends, so I don't think I am delusional.) But it means I need to find a place where that is ok.

The third is I have a little bit of a checkered history, which is to say I have a handful of 18-month jobs. The first 1 or 2 were more my fault: I had a big anxiety problem and it often manifested itself in being hard to get along with. After that, it has been a string of bad luck, mostly taking roles at startups against red flags. Again this is an interpretation I have tested with outside opinion, so I think it is accurate. But these last two things do really worry me, though like I've said, my therapist and other humans who know and have worked with me don't think I am actually doing anything wrong.

So that is my problem. Now, I'm back in New York after living in San Francisco for a few years with savings and a little time to invest on improving things. But how? As far as I see, as of now my situation can be broken down thus:

Things I have going for me:
+ I have a very nice boyfriend who is okay with me not working for a bit and we have savings. (He is on a hiatus, too, attending a program where he works on personal projects, but should be back to work by mid-October.)
+ I have a small network of people who have been introducing me around for freelance, but nothing has really come of it, yet.
+ My LinkedIn is full of recommendations and things like that. If you look at it, I look normal-ish, except for the number of positions, which since tech may not be the worst thing ever.
+ I've given a few talks lately and a conference is even flying me in to give another in September. People seem to like these talks and people I am impressed by have started following *me* on Twitter. (A lot of the data community is there, so it is pretty good.) I think maybe I could do more to make this into something but not sure how.
+ I helped found a Meetup in SF around the kind of datavis I am into and have been introduced to some community members here in NYC.
+ I'm pretty smart and good at teaching myself things.

Things I have going against me:
+ I'm entirely self-taught.
+ My last few jobs were pretty crappy which means a lot of things I designed never got made or have been butchered since I left. And that makes them hard to talk about much less post on my portfolio.
+ I don't have a lot of mobile experience, which is becoming a you-need-it-to-get-it kind of thing.
+ I'm getting old. Which I think is dumb that it matters to people, but I can't discount that sometimes it does.

Things I can do:
+ Spend the next two-ish months working on freelance (if I can get more when this project ends) and the mobile app I want to make, plus redo my site, rewrite my portfolio, try to add to blog stuff and just put together the best things I can. And keep working on programming. This seems like the best option right now, but it also seems overwhelming and not-guaranteed. I probably need a better idea of an end-goal to better prioritize the things I *could* be working on.
+ Sign up for one of the dev bootcamps to get my front-end/Javascript skills together. I am not thrilled by this idea, because it is super expensive and you just have a certificate at the end.
+ Go to grad school for an Interaction Design MFA. It's also expensive but ends in an actual degree and may give me the time and space to get better at visual design, create projects that don't have to make compromises to business decisions, and just seem more current when looking. Pretty much all my designer friends have one. I'm worried I won't get in though, and I've reached the point where every no puts me closer to a tailspin of depression.
+ Just keep trying to get a job now. This option depresses me the most, because I don't know how much more rejection I can take. I have a friend I admire who says it took her 82 noes to get the position she has and loves now, but I don't know if I am that resilient. And I have the time, in theory, to not do that, so I shouldn't squander it.
+ Something else?

Thanks for making it all the way down here, and I look forward to your advice.
posted by argentum to Work & Money (5 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The first option might seem like the best option right now, but I guarantee you it's not going to get you to a successful place.

Dev bootcamp, learn mobile, or go for your degree. Being entirely self-taught is ok, but if you have a light portfolio, no current hot skills, and a string of short-lived jobs... well... you've got some pretty stiff competition out there in the market.
posted by erst at 9:02 AM on July 31, 2014

I don't have much in the way of concrete advice about your career choices but I wanted to say that I sympathize with how you've been characterized as a non-black woman in the workplace. In both my journalism and now compliance career, I've been characterized much in the same way as you have (even while colleagues gush about how pleasant I am to work with and while the white males who acted like prima donnas get plum assignments.) Higher ups bristle at my confidence and take that as "aggressive" and "defensive". It has affected me to the point where I am once again considering that corporate America might not be the place for me. I've watered down my "New York-born, daughter of strivers, black girl" image as much as I am willing to and now I'm simply looking for a place where those qualities will benefit me. You might have to do the same. Good luck.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 9:14 AM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm not as familiar with the NY tech scene, but I'm pretty sure there are networking groups for women in tech, and also women of color in tech. I have found the DC versions to be really great for networking for jobs, learning, and building your reputation. Here's an article that might have some relevant leads, or check out meetup to find something near you.
posted by instamatic at 11:17 AM on July 31, 2014

I've been doing interactive data vis for many years now. I have an independent practice with a strong portfolio of top shelf customers. I love what I do but I cannot deny that it is very hard work.

Data visualisation is a difficult field. It is growing. There is a market for people who can do it well and a definite skills shortage. The very best customers are to be found in government and NGO's, they have real world problems and are very happy to work with designers and programmers who can help solve them.

But data vis can be very challenging to do well. You need a high level understanding of math: not just statistics but trigonometry and calculus to undergraduate level, advanced data skills, programming, and of course great visual communication. So truly great data vis is almost never done by individuals, it requires a team of people with wide ranging talents. Unfortunately, the market is overflowing with amateurs who are not sufficiently skilled to understand the real complexity of the kind of problems most of these clients have (believe me, I have worked with a few!) These are your competition. If you can get better than them and learn to sell yourself, you can make a career.

My own skills are that of a translator. I can understand the needs of users and customers, gather technical requirements and work with programmers to translate them into simple, appealing graphic designs and user experiences. My educational background is an undergraduate degree in engineering and a masters in media design from a leading art school.

My advice to you in a nutshell:
- Go for that MFA if you can. Go to loads of open days at different faculties, talk to teaching staff, find the place that works for you. The masters degree was a hardship but it made a huge difference to my career and was worth every penny.
- Work to build your network. You need collaborators and customers. There is growing interest in local government and other organisations, so potential clients are everywhere. You're doing the right thing in putting yourself about at conferences, it works for me.
- Learn hard skills, from Excel and Google Refine at one end (your clients will be using these) through to D3, R and Processing at the other. If you don't have math at a high level, do whatever you can to educate yourself in this area.
- Don't worry too much about mobile at this stage. It is not a good platform for hard data vis problems (limited processing power, UI restrictions) and in spite of the hype there still isn't as much money in apps as you might imagine. If and when you are experienced on other platforms, it's likely the right projects will come along eventually.
- Don't get disheartened. If this really is for you, you have to stay on the bus!

My story is not your story, but I have been where you are now and I see a great many parallels (self-starting uppity woman in tech operates in a foreign country, experiences setbacks in certain working environments.) I have many, many more things to share with you about my career path in data vis. Please feel free to PM me.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 12:07 PM on July 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

If you really want to stick with datavis, I would say no to grad school––unless you can get into ITP, honestly. But to me, it doesn't sound like you're dead set on data vis, and would be happy to be a generalist.

Given that, I would suggest doing a General Assembly class or similar, and network the shit out of it. Then go on a ton of "casual chats about your company"/informational interviews and be very picky before you settle on something if you can afford to be out of work. 18 months per gig is totally fine if you don't come off as a hot mess or complainer.

(Tangential to the question, but: I'm a woman in the industry here, too. Being characterized as "intimidating" is definitely a thing I've dealt with on the job but it hasn't prevented me from getting them. Interviews aren't the place to be seriously assertive, they're for proving you're not an idiot or a pain in the ass to work with. They're for asking the right questions with a big smile – you have more latitude to tell people what's what once you get the job.)
posted by thirdletter at 4:17 PM on July 31, 2014

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