Despite many “Women in Tech” initiatives, organisations are still unable to boast much in terms of a gender-representative workforce, which is particularly apparent within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) industries and especially within leadership.
As part of our push for International Women’s Day on March 8th, we’ve interviewed inspirational women working within STEM industries for their take on being a woman in the current landscape.
Today we had the chance to speak with Jade Johnson, former Couture Fashion Designer, Product Design Instructor and Systems Architect for NASA. Now living in Berlin — Jade is both a Dance Musician, known as Vamp Acid — and Global UX Design Consultant at a large Tech Firm. Today, in our Thought Leadership interview, she speaks to us about being a woman in tech and bridging the gender gap in the STEM fields. Jade is one of our featured women in our International Women’s Day Industry Insiders series. Read about how she navigates being a woman in such a heavily male-dominated sector, including advice for women looking to begin a new tech-based career.
Whilst teaching Product Design at Otis College of Art and Design in LA, one of the best design colleges in the US, Jade felt that she’d hit a wall in her career, and a fellow Instructor encouraged her to go back to grad school. Jade intuitively knew that she had to break through the glass ceiling, to have a greater impact on people. Yet, she believed rather than spending an astronomical $200,000 on extended education, she would focus on changing careers instead. Throughout her research, she came across a TED Talk, which resonated with her, illuminating the gender gap in tech and how women are grossly misrepresented. Now she knew to take the turn into tech.
It was also the discovery of General Assembly, which helped shape her path, which she describes as “a boot camp grad school of the tech industry”. Jade was keen on focusing on the development and engineering side of things. But GA persuaded her to go into the UX field, due to her unique background, education and strong leadership skills. Then Jade hit a pivotal point in her career and began consulting for NASA in Systems Architecture and Project Management for robotics on the ISS (International Space Station). This huge accomplishment, combined with her decision to move to Berlin, supported her successful career shift. Following the NASA gig, Jade was living in Europe and began working for a foreign government embassy on medical software development and discovered her passion for complex logistics and process optimisation. There she understood how her unique mind was a natural specialist in solving delicately intricate world problems. Regardless of the day, she makes user-centered optimisation and improvements the center of her practice. She constantly challenges her circumstances, conducting critical research and analysis, progressing in new insights, pushing results forward and achieving milestones.
So, it was part General Assembly (GA) and having a design background, which helped Jade break into the User Experience Design direction. We asked, “Was it important for you to contribute to the industry from a female perspective, with the gender imbalance factor?”
Jade agreed, and stated that when she was entering the industry, less than 25% of the women were active in tech in Los Angeles. We mentioned that we recognise it to be less than this Globally: More so at around 15-20%. There have been increasing numbers of women in various areas of tech, with many companies recognising the need for a push in the customer-centric areas: UX and Product Design. As the gender imbalance more-so levels out these days, female designers offer crucial perspectives in tackling issues, both internal and external, to organisations and customers alike.
We spoke about how more people need encouragement to get into UX Design and Tech fields from an earlier age – to try and shrink the gender gap. We’ve seen the trend of several Librarians transitioning to Information Architects, utilising their skills and understanding of information and the hierarchies that exist within it.
Jade conveys that a fundamental “entry point” to tech from a non-tech background is recognising your own capabilities and transferable skills. Then building upon them with your past experiences, bridging multi-disciplinary aspects and discovering where your passion lives. When you can connect those dots, you can make for yourself an enriching career. So it’s important that we educate and guide young people, especially young women, on potential opportunities. As female mentors, we can show them that Experience Design can be fun, simple and rewarding. If you approach it like solving a puzzle, you’ll know that you can come into the office, go out on the field, work remotely, whatever. You can have a stable, interesting career, where no day is ever be the same and really gain your independence.
In the US, there is a huge “blue-collar market” and people are just trying to “get by” due to the educational costs being an obstacle for so many. UX is a relatively new industry, stemming from the Information Architecture field, coined in the ‘90s. But you get Product, Visual and Graphic Designers going into User Experience, not necessarily having the usability insights. She’s met quite a few Designers who are learning Experience Design skills. Alongside, experts coming to the field with a Psychology or even Product Management background is quite common.
There is a plethora of titles that you can have in this industry. She’s worked as an “Information Architect, Systems Architect, Product Designer UX, Senior UX Designer, UX / UI Lead, Global UX Consultant and counting, haha. That’s the beauty of it — the UX field is cross disciplinary, and we have so many unique, skilled and dedicated people who truly want to improve services for humans. At the end of the day, this m.o. is both heart warming and energising.”
Yet to be a truly excellent User Experience Designer, you need to understand the customer’s perspective. And that many insights are attainable through monitoring behaviour. “So for instance, when running a user testing session, you want it to mirror your customer’s native environment, creating an open, comfortable space. Lead them through the process with open questions, and really listen. It’s important to record customer insights; where their behaviour is visualised and becomes quantifiable.” Having a gender balanced and diversified team will help you to bring in many perspectives. These versatile viewpoints can illuminate previously overlooked customer and business pain-points and facilitate more creativity and structure as dynamic strategic thinking.
We asked Jade whether she could offer any advice on how we can encourage more female students towards computer or design-focused subjects.
She explained that there are so many design-related courses you could take, say, in an immersive UX program. And it’s always good to know design suites like Adobe and Sketch, or taking tailored online courses through lynda.com via LinkedIn, or even Udemy. We should also encourage people who are looking for a career change, where they can transfer in their existing skills and build upon them. Jade believes that creating visibility on the market, like advertising via social media platforms, Instagram even, will create greater accessibility and will encourage entry into the tech industries. Approaching matriculation departments in prepping the students for these fields, or educating Guidance Counselors would be beneficial in creating visibility of these fields for young people. And also showing women that it’s simpler than one would think to change careers. “It’s all about having the right mentors — combined by adequate research — you know, and working with what you got! Oh, and of course, showing women how challenging and fun it can be working in tech.”
There are UX programs in Berlin that offer government retraining sponsorship for a career change. Her friend was a high-fashion hairdresser for 20 years, who transitioned into the UX field via a boot camp, which was through the German government’s Arbeitsamt’s “Ausbildung” retraining initiative. We agreed that this sounds like a brilliant initiative, and Jade recently found out that this is because in Germany, there is a real push for free training, in order to keep the unemployment rate down. “As an Expat from Los Angeles, the social system in Germany is just worlds beyond anything she’s seen, well, maybe next to progressive Sweden,” she told us. Additionally, for politicians to continue lobbying for Universal education and upholding legal protection for women’s rights with civil penalisation for culprits of crimes against women globally. This protection for young girls is particularly important to be upheld in developing countries with higher poverty rates. You can find more info on protecting women’s rights and solving the gender gap in the professional world in some of the links that Jade provided for us today.
The way is “to spoon-feed people” this information and present female role-models who share their experience, strength and offer hope to all different types of women. “People want heroes to look up to that they can respect and admire; those who have succeeded, especially against all odds.” Additionally, this generation is bombarded with social media every day. The repercussions that these in-your-face social media platforms are having on these children and young adults, is yet to be fully known. Yet we can still utilise these platforms to educate or pitch these industries to young women: We know this is a good way to target the audience we need.
Instagram is an easy way to be found and connect with people, especially in the creative fields with the audio-visual elements. Jade shared with us that she gets cool requests for music work this way. On the other side of that, is to take social media breaks, or a “digital detox”. Cause just as the industry is trying to balance out, it’s important to keep a balanced life. And what she’s learned, especially since moving to a foreign country alone (well, with her dog, haha), is that there is courage in asking for help. So if anyone is listening today, Jade encourages you to “be brave, work smarter — follow the guiding signs, release control of the results and allow yourself the freedom to be happy — because you deserve that much!”
We asked Jade for her opinion of General Assembly being the way to skill-up quickly for people looking to break in to another area.
We discussed that in the Berlin market, we’ve heard mixed reviews regarding General Assembly. There are senior people in the industry who believe it to be reductive; can you really gain enough experience over a 12-week course? With the teaching that it offers on how to create a portfolio, rather than an in-depth, detailed understanding. “But the point is, that you take the boot camp element, and learn the most crucial skills in a concrete manner. So by working with these mentors, building upon your existing skill-sets and taking internships, you are much further along than someone coming fresh out of Uni. Because you already have that life experience, when already pushes you farther along in your career than you initially might realise.”
But not everyone has the ability or time to do 4 years’ worth of study to change location or career. GA is a paid service, in which you are buying the experience of your mentors, in order to teach and educate yourself. In Academia, the track is more theory based than applied field experience. Jade thinks it could be cool if they offered subsidised costs to young women on the tech courses. You’re assisting women, but also capitalising on that business model. There is a lot that General Assembly can do to raise their own profile, and in turn, encourage women to get into the sector. It may take them being recognised by the Federal Design Association before this occurs. Recognition by a standardised service would really help for them to gain support, in order to provide such initiatives, like scholarships for women, other marginalised people or people who need tuition assistance. At least is the case in the US. In Europe, there are Universities with almost free tuition programs.
We mentioned that we rarely see companies try to employ a group of more junior designers that they’d bring up and teach. There’s more to be done with companies making space for future talent. Jade often sees a sizeable gap in the team structure, where they will have a couple of fresh UX Designers; or one, even. Or maybe they’re coming from a purely Visual or UI background without customer and usability insight awareness. Or don’t understand how to pair data with testing — that just create a mockup in order to make it look “pretty” because the Client or Stakeholder wants it — without the necessary research, testing, iterations, rinse and repeat.
And when the often reaching market requests for a “UX Designer with 7 years of experience”, that expert probably won’t be attainable in the market easily by a company. You can realistically tick about 70% of those boxes off in the hiring process, instead of living in perfectionism, and understand where their experience fills in the annual gaps of specialisation. Balance out the great qualities of the person, with their unique background in — Psychology (User Researcher), as a Librarian (Information Architect), Product Design Instructor (UX Designer), etc. — in their ability to grow and see them for how they enhance your daily practice as a company owner or team lead.
There was a recent point when Jade was offered a Creative Director position in a reputable Advertising Agency in Hamburg, that wanted her to help build a tech company for them. They told her that because she had such unique career experience, and that she wasn’t working in the Ad industry, that she would come in with a fresh perspective and be able to help setup their new company successfully. “It could have been an amazing opportunity for me, for my career, I was grateful that they recognised my expertise and offered me a generous chance — but Berlin is home and I had to listen to heart in staying. I’m confident that I made the right choice, and I will be matched with a great new choice in the future.” Remember, that when you disrupt the traditional hiring model, by creating a balanced team structure, meaning — Jr., Mid, Sr., Lead, Head, VP, etc., — and unique people from different backgrounds and genders, you will not only create an excellent product, but an awesome place to work!
“If anything, I’ve learned from working in and assessing startups is to not fall into the bootstrapped trap of unbalanced hiring with 17 Developers and 1 remote part-time UX/UI Designer. Yes, it’s important to get the basics down of your product, like making sure it works, but also to test, ideally before releasing it to the market and understanding how usable it is and how much is resonates with your customers. Usability sessions can easily be held with UX Designers or Researchers. It may seem like you’re spending more now, but you’ll actually save yourself resources in the long-run along the product roadmap if you measure twice (or ten times) and cut once, which I learned when I was doing fashion. It’s important, to quote Depeche Mode, “Get the Balance Right,” haha. So why not start whilst building out your team in disruptive hiring techniques and implement those best practices, especially within your company’s infancy?”
Returning to the topic of GA, Jade mentions that many of the people that come in are adults from different backgrounds — psychology, marketing or sales — coupled with the practical experience learnt at these bootcamps, their individual experience and what they’ve learnt prior to this, it lends itself well to building a successful portfolio. You can bring in skills from other areas and the experience learnt during the transition of moving from one career path to another. It’s hard to relocate to another country and build up a new network. Jade said she wouldn’t trade that experience: making the move. “Many people told me it would be impossible, and it’s been a huge challenge, but I did it because I knew that I had to try. And the only failure is in not trying, or perceiving it that way.”
We asked which women or diversity initiatives Jade could tell us about that she has experienced in the workplace.
Jade asserts that, “Promoting diversity is a huge thing politically.” She’s worked in companies who want to hire refugees and women, and she thinks its super cool and necessary to diversify the workplace. International teams can really enhance the product development experience. Jade grew up in a diverse place, so she’s used to this setup. She goes on to say, “What I see as an issue, is commodifying or glorifying an all-female team of Designers, where’s the diversity in that?” Through the efforts to close the gap and strike the balance, it counter-productively becomes lop-sided. A glaring issue in larger organisations is the lack of female executives, rather than the general workforce. It is the percentage of women at board level that is a big issue.
There are several initiatives such as the “Geekettes” Berlin Meetup, that offers free coding workshops for women. Or the ‘Women in Tech’ part of the Web Summit – where they sell cheaper tickets for women to attend. You know, bits and bobs. But Jade does make the point that looking back in historically, traditionally women were more family orientated. And being a child-bearer was their predominant role. So you understand, the structure is still adapting to modernisation, after years of a societally ingrained ideal of men as the breadwinners type of antiquated thinking. In Germany, Maternity Leave is up to 3 years. In the States, you just don’t get that. But the fact that women can have choice in careers, kids if they want to, and be fulfilled, balanced and successful, is next level equality. And Jade values those freedoms.
Initiatives we’ve identified to try and encourage girls into STEM Industries include the STEM Girls Days and the Stemettes. We asked Jade which she had experienced. She mentioned a Bootcamp “Girls Who Code” in Berlin – a programme for young girls. Jade herself has pushed the initiative before — inviting every woman in her network or involved with her site, given her background in events. However, she believes there needs to be a general push for increased respect across all employees — “We’re all here to solve the same issues, why don’t we all to ‘play nicely’ together. We can do without a competitive mindset and focus on an inclusive mindset. We are so unique that it’s impossible to compete. Let’s try to understand where everyone is coming from.” If you are interested in changing careers or just want to connect with Jade, she’d be happy to hear from you on LinkedIn.
Jade is part of a network called Female Pressure. A Feminist group working with female identifying people, which can be trans and LGTB. People working with AI driven music, more advanced, cutting-edge technologies. Leaning towards tech and music-related industries. Tech-head people have made an initiative to have 50% representation of women within these music festivals. There is a trend of those working in tech, who also do music.
We asked Jade if she has a mentor.
She spoke of her good friend, Susanna Schick, who lives in California, but has previously lived in the UK, France, Italy, New York. She’s worked in the fashion industry, now with a focus on sustainable fashion consulting. She volunteers a lot of her time in terms of helping people learn their craft, fashion and technology. Jade looks up to her because she is compassionate, honest and fearless — like a big sister to her. One of the only people who said it was possible for her to make the move to Berlin.
We asked how this friendship/mentorship came about — “Did you seek her out as a mentor, or did she become one?”
Jade mentioned that she met her on Craigslist – giving away vintage Fashion Magazines. With both living in the Bay area, Susanna gave Jade the encouragement to go to Europe.
Jade believes that mentors are key to any form of success. Having a sounding board, and really listening and reflecting on your experiences. She mentioned a piece of advice that she has taken with her which came from her former CTO and now friend, who was a Doctor and studying Children’s Psychiatry in Japan: A big part of therapy is in the art of offloading information and letting go. She mentions these mentorships can be online and has found people online — through SoundCloud, Ted Talk forums/networks, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. Just asking for help and saying out loud that you need “help” can frame and identify a problem. “It’s an act of humility and gives you the willingness to improve.”
Additionally, when you reach a level of success, it’s important to share what’s been given to you in the feedback loop. These natural instincts of knowledge sharing are part of staying connected to your community in life. And create a more enriching life at that. We asked Jade if she is a mentor to anyone. She has a few “mentee types” that she speaks to; often meeting people for coffee in similar industries, providing a soundboard for them, where they can pick her brain for gems of data. And make lifelong friends in the process!
She ends our interview on a note that provides great “food for thought”: Emphasising the need for hiring processes to be developed in tech. A disruption of the existing process and truly understanding who you are working for, as well as seeking out women coming from diverse backgrounds that may not come out of the tech industry. This results in more rich and unbiased insights that contribute to business growth. Ensuring you’re not commodifying that person — being cognisant that you’re not taking on someone purely because they’re a woman. And taking on these initiatives because you want to — not because you feel you are ticking a box. Improve diversification by listening and learning about the person. It can be prejudiced and counter productive if you are looking for a woman or man just to fulfil a hiring quota. Taking the right approach to close the gap — attracting people rather than promoting to them. As well as Industry Icons and mentors speaking to their experience, can really spearhead more women into STEM fields.