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I Quit My Job to Become a Unicorn

image of a unicorn

I've been working in the UX field for almost 8 years now. Over the past three or four years, I've gotten deep into the SaaS world. Less than a year after starting to work at a educational technology (edtech) startup, I'm leaving my job to go back to school....to learn how to become a "unicorn." I'm hoping that my story will inspire others to take a leap of faith to follow their gut (at the very least, you'll know why I left my job).

No such things as unicorns?

I've never been a big fan of labels. As such, I could currently care less about how people view UX "unicorns"—team members who can simultaneously wear the hats of UX (research/design), visual design, and UI development. I didn't use to feel that way, but I know now that the tech world is far too demanding for team members to be able to contribute just one thing. Knowledge is power, for everyone. While I certainly don't believe that someone can have super-advanced skills in every.single.discipline that's involved in software development, I do firmly believe in the concept of "T-shaped" team members.

My journey to T-shape

A lot of my early UX career had me pigeon-holed into discrete jobs, mostly wireframing and researching, but hardly ever at the same time. I'm a woman of many interests and I hate twiddling my thumbs, so these roles never satisfied me. At one company, we had separate UX design and research teams. Sure, okay, probably better to have someone else doing the testing of our designs. That helps remove some bias. But when the research team is doing my design research for a task? That's nutso. The act of browsing interaction patterns and experiences online (aka "getting inspiration") is not something that can be outsourced and then thrown over the wall. It's an internal process that a designer must go through to help get the creative juices flowing.

Fast-forward to a SaaS company I worked at for a few years. There, I was working directly alongside three developers and a product manager on a daily basis, crafting and refining user stories, sketching, prototyping, pixel-pushing, making commits, and testing features. There were soft boundaries between some of our roles, and I loved every minute of it. Together, we helped launched an enterprise product, watching it grow from the pre-pilot phase through general release and beyond.

There, I was working directly alongside three developers and a product manager on a daily basis, crafting and refining user stories, sketching, prototyping, pixel-pushing, making commits, and testing features. There were soft boundaries between some of our roles, and I loved every minute of it.

There were three official interaction designers at that company (all of us on different product teams), and our strengths were complementary. I brought research methodology and skills to the table while the other two rocked visual design and front-end development. Even though we all were generalists, we each had specialized skillsets that set us a part from one another. I'd always hoped I'd be able to strengthen my weaker areas in UX (specifically, the UI aspect) by learning from these guys.

Even though I loved my job at this company, I left sooner than expected to take a director-level position at an edtech startup. It was going to be a chance for me to build and grow a UX team and immerse myself in the startup life (plus, the commute was way better, a job criterion that's now going to be mandatory for me). It was an extremely difficult decision, but I decided I was ready for the promotion and the challenges that awaited me.

My personal pivot

During my time as Director of UX at that startup, I had to hire a visual designer for our team. More than a few of the 48 resumes I received for the position were those of unicorns. Creative Developer, Hybrid Developer, UX Designer... Their titles varied, but what became clear to me was that I missed wearing many hats. (While the startup I was at was very collaborative, I wasn't as involved in the entire product development process as I had been in my previous job.)

I always keep my eyes on UX job listings (even if I'm not looking to jump ship) because I know that technology is ever-changing and I need to keep up with the design trends and skillsets needed today. I always see unicorn-esque product designer listings:

  • "Your design process involves wireframing, low-fidelity mocking, high-fidelity mocking, and plenty of user testing along the way. You don't 'toss designs over the wall' rather you work closely with engineers to grok feasibility and speed."
  • "You can prototype your designs in HTML and CSS (perhaps even Javascript). You write modular CSS and keep your code well organized."
  • "We expect designers to code, so you should be able to prototype anything you create into working (and beautiful) HTML/CSS."
  • "You can successfully bring a whole concept from idea to wireframe, to mockup/prototype (and ideally to HTML/CSS as well)."

I don't scoff at listings like these anymore; I know now that even though managers post pie-in-the-sky job descriptions because they want the best, they understand that they're not going to get perfect. They just want T-shaped team members who can keep up with today's fast pace of software development and who can learn, grow, and teach others.

For a few months prior to even coming across those unicorn resumes, I'd been researching code schools. I knew that it was too early in my UX career to stop learning. There was a missing piece, and I thought that piece might be beefing up my UI skills so that I could become a better designer overall. The problem with the code schools I found was that they didn't speak to my needs. I didn't want to be a developer, I just wanted to become more knowledgeable about was possible in the design realm. Bonus: I could create my own interactive prototypes from scratch. I tried the self-paced, in-your-spare-time routes like Treehouse and Code School. I couldn't stay engaged and so my efforts always petered out.

What do you get when you feel lost in your career, get inspired by people who make a living doing the things you want to be doing, and then come across a professional development program that can help propel you into the kind of creator you've always wanted to be? A resignation.

Enter Bloc.io

During one of my casual code-school-browsing sessions, I came across Bloc.io, an organization offering online bootcamp programs in design, web development, and mobile development. What really got me interested in Bloc was its mentorship aspect: included in your program is access to a mentor with whom you have one-on-one sessions during the duration of your time in your program. I reviewed Bloc's UX Design program and its Frontend Web Development program. After reading basically the whole Bloc site and a comprehensive YouTube video on the UX Design program, I requested more info on the UX Design program. I was sent a sample syllabus (what Bloc calls a "roadmap") which gave me a general idea of what content the program would cover. I ended up calling Bloc for more information and then the next thing I knew, I was applying for it's New Relic Diversity Scholarship.

At first I was a little worried that the Frontend program was too "developer-heavy" for me (lots o' Javascript) and that the UX program would be too basic for me. After speaking to my student advisor, I learned that Bloc programs actually put the focus on what the individual student needs. So even though there's a standard curriculum, your mentor can adjust your pace with you and help you focus on what you need to learn the most. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach, which was very appealing to me. If I did the UX Design program, I would be able to weigh my focus more heavily on UI design and development than on UX design (user flows, wireframing) since I've already got experience in that area.

So, I signed up for the UX Design program and then I resigned from my job to do the full-time (40 hours/week) option. After meeting with my mentor for the first time, I felt more confident that I'd made the right choice. We talked extensively about my UX journey and where I thought I might want to go next. We discussed areas we could focus on for my particular needs.

My decision to leave my job to go back to school was a little off-the-cuff, but it just felt right. Months of wondering if I was in the right place at the right time. So many candidates who had front-end development skills in addition to UX skills. And then coming across Bloc.io's intensive training program where I could hone my front-end skills and work closely with a mentor. @@Finding Bloc solidified my decision to make filling my UX gaps my full-time mission.@@