Design Thinking Your Tech Career
Are you feeling unfilled or stuck in your career? Or maybe you just want to figure out the next step for yourself? As an active member of Capital One’s Women in Tech business resource group, an internal group for supporting a diverse and inclusive workplace by bringing together and developing women in technology careers, I attend almost all of their events and trainings.
Most recently, I attended a Design Thinking Your Career workshop that they sponsored for female engineers, product managers, and scrum masters at Capital One. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but I liked the sound of it. With being less than two years into my career as a software engineer, I wanted to use this workshop to explore all of the different options ahead of me in the next five to ten years.
Some of you might be wondering, what the heck is design thinking? Before digging into the workshop itself, let me explain exactly what this is. According to the Interactive Design Foundation, design thinking is “a non-linear, iterative process which seeks to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.” It is typically used by design and product teams in order to create new, innovative solutions with the users in mind. Google, Apple, and Airbnb are just a few companies that have adopted this way of thinking.
And guess what? This same way of thinking can be applied to us engineers and our careers. When applying this state of mind to ourselves, we think of ourselves as the end user and our careers as the product we are trying to get just right. We need to use the design thinking process to understand what we want out of our careers, challenge the plan we’ve always had for ourselves, redefine our goals, and find an effective solution to feeling fulfilled and productive in our jobs.
The typical design thinking process consists of five different phases, all of which are meant to be revisited and explored as you complete the exercise. I’ve adapted these phases to fit our use case of our own careers.
Phase 1 - Empathize
Get to know yourself.
What’s your ideal Saturday? Do you have any hobbies? What’s something you wish you could do at work? Tell me about your findest summer memory. Show me a picture of when you felt most at-peace.
Ask yourself honest questions about your passions, desires, and what makes you happy. Really look at your day to day and pick out what gets you excited. What kinds of things bring you the most joy in your life and career? This will act as an empathy interview, an important part of the design thinking process. The purpose of this phase is to dig deep and gain real insight into your own needs and wants.
This is typically done with a partner, so it may be difficult to get yourself to answer these questions in a way that’s true to yourself. There are certain things you can do to get yourself more comfortable, like sitting in your favorite place while you answer these questions or listening to your favorite song. If you have access to a friend or coworker that wants to perform the interview on you, that would be even better. This way they can record what they hear from you without any self-bias.
I really enjoyed this phase of the process because it allowed me to open up about the things that make me me and get me excited! Everyone loves talking about themselves and being able to do that in a setting where someone really listens to you and tries to understand you is a surreal feeling. By answering a few of these questions my partner was able to get a shockingly spot-on grasp on what brings me joy. I talked about my interests in data science, wellness, fitness, and education and shared how my love of solving mathematical problems can impact our well-being.
Phase 2 - Define
Craft a personal statement.
“I am ______________, I want to _________________, because ________________.”
Who are you in your technology career? What do you REALLY want based on what you discovered about yourself in your self-assessment? Make sure you really dig deep into it rather than restate the expectations you’ve always had for your career.
Then, think about what’s standing in your way. Are you scared you won’t be good enough? Do you think you lack the skills or certificate needed for your dream career? Are you afraid others will laugh at you? Pinpoint exactly what is stopping you from pursuing what fulfills you the most. In this phase you want to figure out the problem you are trying to solve for yourself in your career. Pinpoint why you aren’t feeling excited to code that new script or adapt that new technology on your team.
For me, I did some thinking on what I enjoyed most about my current role at Capital One (automation, Python scripting, and educating others) and some things I might enjoy learning about or integrating into my career in the future (creating models, working with data, and helping people feel like their best selves). From there, the personal statement just flowed, giving me a good idea of how where I am now influences both where I want to be and how I should get there.
Phase 3 - Ideate
Drawing helps spurt creativity and gets the brain thinking in a way that it otherwise would not. According to Sunni Brown Ink, a creative consultant, “when the mind starts to engage with visual language, you get neurological access that you don’t have when you’re in a linguistic mode”. We typically think by writing, reading, and speaking but doing this by drawing opens up a new kind of brainstorming, allowing for innovative ideas.
This drawing activity is called “atomization”, meaning you are breaking objects down into their smallest components. Which objects are comprised of circles? Time yourself for three minutes and draw as many objects as you can within the given circles (Fast Company).
Performing this activity will put yourself in the right mindset to think out of the box with new ideas. How many of these empty circles did you draw into actual objects? This helps you think in a way you haven’t adapted to but also develops your speed of thinking of new ideas.
I personally love drawing and expressing my creative side, so I enjoyed this different form of “thinking”. It definitely got me in the mindset of thinking out of the box (or in this case, out of the circle) and allowed me to brainstorm crazy careers that ended up not being so crazy after all.
Phase 4 - Brainstorm
Write down and draw out possible career ideas based on your personal statement.
What careers immediately pop into your head when you read your personal statement? Write them all down! Even the ones that may seem crazy or out-of-the-box. You never know what you can be drawn to in the end. The point of this exercise is to dig deeper and think beyond what might currently seem practical.
Don’t be afraid to reach outside the world of technology. Maybe there’s a career in a different field that you’re better suited for. Or maybe you just aren’t in the right industry for your technological skills or interests. If you work as an accountant for an insurance company but your true passion lies in the toy industry, maybe consider looking for an accounting position for your favorite toy company.
In addition to writing out these careers, remember that drawing helps you brainstorm in a whole new way. Drawing these careers may just lead you to one you wouldn’t have thought of by simply spelling it out. Your brain is used to thinking with words so break this habit and think in terms of pictures (Fast Company)!
Do I want to be a data scientist? What about a public speaker? And how about being someone who writes for a living? This is the stage where I applied everything I thought on and wrote about in Phase 1 to real world situations.
Phase 4 - Prototype
Filter through the ideas.
Which ideas are your favorite? Which ideas aren’t for you? Think about the pros and cons of each one. Which one can you see yourself doing for a career in the future? Don’t think about HOW you will achieve it or how hard it might be. We will come up with an action plan on how you can make this dream career a reality.
Phase 5 - Test
Create a final storyboard.
Draw a picture of the process you need to take to get to this career; this is a kind of doodling called a “Process Map”. A Process Map is a picture that illustrates a sequence of events that can help you make sense out of a complex system. The process of adopting a new career can be quite confusing but drawing it out can help your brain understand the steps that need to be taken. According to Lucid Software, “Process mapping will identify bottlenecks, repetition and delays”. Drawing this map will help you identify any issues that could appear during your career transition before it even occurs.
It’s important to keep your storyboard realistic but also make sure you push yourself to dream. Break this process down into six different steps and draw them out. What do you need to do first to reach this position? Once you take that first step, then what do you need to do? And so on. Repeat this until you can see yourself at the final sixth step of achieving your dream career.
The goal is to end up with a career that you can envision yourself doing in the future. It should be a career that makes you really excited and pushes you to make the necessary changes to your career now. If you create the storyboard and still aren’t excited with the plan you created for your career, go back to the ideate and protype stages. Brainstorm some more or pick an idea that really pushes you forward.
When you draw a storyboard you love, hold yourself accountable and set a small goal to get yourself there. Take it one at a time and work towards that goal. Once you complete that small goal, set another small goal. Before you know it you’ll be in your dream role. I can see myself coding away in Python, analyzing different data models, and interacting with business teams.
As the painter Vincent Van Gogh allegedly said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
If you take the time to do this exercise, consider it progress in the right direction. You made the effort, did the small thing, to start thinking about what you really want out of your career. If you want to read more about this topic, check out “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The concept of design thinking can spill into other areas of your personal life as well!
What dream career did you come up with from applying design thinking to your life?
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