Breaking into Product Design: From Software Engineering to UX

For the first three years of my career, I was a software engineer at a large financial institution. Now, I’m a product designer at an IoT startup. The road was definitely a winding one.

Lauren Winkler

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Growing up, I always looked up to my dad. We’ve worked on many projects together over the years, such as: constructing my winning pinewood derby car, building a desktop computer from scratch, to (most recently) fixing the plumbing of my house. My dad has never backed down from a challenge. He is dedicated to the philosophy of learning how to do things yourself. I grew up aspiring to be as resourceful as he was and followed his footsteps in engineering.

I set my course towards Penn State's College of Engineering early on, but engineering covers a wide array of careers. Picking a specific major was daunting. I ended up choosing computer science because I enjoyed the introductory class I’d taken in high school.

My favorite course at Penn State was an iOS development class. We developed a different app or feature in Swift every week. Completing the criteria for the assignment earned you a B. To get an A, you had to go above and beyond. The freedom and creativity involved in building something unique excited me. It was the first time I had the opportunity to look beyond function. I was challenged to make the feature user-friendly and elegant as well. I spent my weekends that semester working on these assignments non-stop. I would put in long hours, but I enjoyed it. I loved the satisfaction and pride I had for the work I produced. 

That class in particular brought a sense of relief, to have found something in my major that I could see myself enjoying as a career. And then I joined the real world...

Landing the Wrong Job

Fresh out of college, I jumped into my career as a software developer at the financial tech company I had interned at the summer before. As part of a rotational program, I had the opportunity to work on two very different teams. One focused on API development for credit card applications; the other supported a machine learning decisioning platform.

I didn't have a choice, however, regarding the teams and assignments I had during this program. The things I got to work on were interesting, but they did not make me excited to go to work every day. I continuously made the same excuse to myself: "I’m just on the wrong project; everything will be better when I am back to doing front-end development” (like the iOS work I’d loved in college).

After the rotational program, an opportunity arose to join a team working on a visible, front-end feature, I jumped on it, thinking I’d finally found the right project. I was crushed when--only three months in--I still wasn’t deriving any excitement or passion from this new work. Something just wasn’t right.

I’d spent three years working alongside talented people and learning more than I ever did in a classroom (for which I am continuously grateful). But while I enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of my roles, I hated the isolation I felt due to the nature of the (siloed) work. I struggled through bouts of imposter syndrome in engineering, never feeling like I was good enough. When I looked around at my leaders, it concerned me that I didn’t aspire to one-day have a job like theirs. I didn’t see any vertical movement for myself.

All those thoughts piled up into a lovely tangle of stress and anxiety that I was lugging to work with me every day, but I’d just kept focusing on trying to be good at the job I was doing. By the end of three years, however, I was coming to the uncomfortable realization that I was not in the right place. It was something that had been brimming beneath the surface for a long time. I wasn’t finding fulfillment in a software engineering career, and I was miserable. I had to go back to the drawing board.

I broke down the type of work that I enjoyed the most during these jobs: creativity, design, and user experience. But I rarely got to do this type of work… and when I did, it was often self-initiated. I realized I naturally approached every task as a designer, applying design-thinking and best practices to my work. I was passionate about creating user-friendly processes and documentation within my teams. At hackathons, I would focus most of my attention on product development, user experience, storytelling, design, and presentation.

Dots were starting to connect… maybe I should explore becoming a product designer?

You Are Not Giving up, You Are Changing Course

Accepting what I had ultimately known all along--that software development was not for me--wasn’t easy. I had put in four years of college to become a software engineer, and I had made it. I had an amazing job. It was really difficult to not feel like I had somehow failed.

Being a woman in tech, I had heard about the “leaky pipeline” many times, first learning of the metaphor in college. It was so ingrained that I genuinely felt like I was letting down other women by thinking of leaving software engineering. I believed--at the time--pursuing any career that wasn’t coding meant that I would become part of the problem. (I was wrong.)

The danger of this metaphor is that it can lead to the misperception that any woman leaving technology is a tragedy. But the goal of 100% retention is unrealistic. People will change fields and interests throughout their lives, and that’s fine. Women shouldn’t be devalued for wanting to use their technical skills and training to contribute elsewhere. I had to reassure myself that it was ok to (and that I absolutely should!) pursue a field I was passionate about.

If You Desire Change, Put in the Work

I knew I wanted to explore product design, but I had to figure out how to make that happen. It wasn’t going to be easy, but the time and dedication would be worth it. I took the initiative and began by splitting my time between my software engineering role and learning design. 

Here’s a breakdown of everything I did:

Created a Design Portfolio - I started my portfolio before even having a conventional design case study. I pulled from the design aspects of work I had done in my roles as a software engineer and continued to build from there.

Found Mentors - I reached out to designers at my company to learn from them. I joined in on their design sprints, and they reviewed my work - it was so motivating to receive constructive and positive feedback. We set up weekly meetings to discuss progress towards my goals, and their encouragement was invaluable.

Joined the Design Community - I started attending the NOVA UX Meetups every month and networked with designers there.

Took a Design Course - I took the UX Design course at General Assembly to get a solid foundation of design concepts and case studies for my portfolio.

Gained Practical Design Experience - I participated in a “relieving financial stress for our customers”-themed hackathon but wound up carrying the project well beyond the event. I ultimately presented a final prototype and case study to teams developing similar features and solutions in production.

Learned Visual Tools - I learned Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop by watching tutorials to create visuals for my case studies and portfolio. I also began the 36 Days of Type challenge to improve my visual design skills.

It wasn’t long before I was spending my weekends in design class, my weekdays at work, and my weeknights doing homework. I was juggling a lot, but I finally had some spark back in my day-to-day life, a sure sign that I was heading in the right direction. It was becoming obvious that I wanted to pursue a career in product design.

But I wouldn’t be able to sustain chasing my dreams wholeheartedly, while simultaneously working a full time job… at least, not indefinitely. After months of trying to balance both, I opted to take a huge risk and leave my job to focus 100% of my energy on pursuing the career I was working towards and finding the right role. I was incredibly fortunate to have been able to make this kind of decision, and that choice and ability to focus were both crucial to getting me to where I am now.

Embracing Liminality

“A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing.”

- What is Liminal Space

My mentor introduced me to the concept of liminality, and--in making this career change--I used it to describe and guide myself through this new stage of life. I was in liminal space… taking the leap, trying to change careers.

It was an exciting time but also stressful (to not know what was coming next). To make the most of the valuable time I suddenly had, I challenged myself to learn new things and refine my skills. This freedom allowed me to work on personal goals in fitness and health--things I had put aside during the first three years of my career--and, I am proud of the things I accomplished during those months.

“Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.”

Finding My Place in Design

I came across Leverege in my search and an open Product Design Apprenticeship, which seemed to be a perfect fit. The role was intended for someone who was ready to learn how to succeed as a product designer at a small startup. I knew I was ready. The spirit and life of the company displayed on their website resonated with me. If working there was truly like that, I knew I would enjoy it. (One of my favorite parts was reading the culture posts. It is surreal to be writing one now!)

I distinctly remember walking out of my interview feeling so happy and hopeful that I immediately called my mom to tell her, “I found the one! This is it [the job I want]!”

That night, I attended the NOVA UX monthly meetup and was surprised to see Leverege’s VP of Design & Product Experience (who had interviewed me and is now my manager) there as one of the presenters. During her presentation, I recall thinking, I want to be like her. One thing I’d learned from my previous career is how important it is to find (and work alongside) people you aspire to learn from and be like.

It has been three months since I started at Leverege, and I couldn’t be happier. I have an amazing team and get to take on a variety of tasks, from creating IoT platform solutions for clients to designing beautiful web experiences. I work cross-functionally with engineering, marketing, and other business partners to deliver great solutions. All that time I spent as a software engineer was not for nothing. It gave me knowledge and context that I leverage (see what I did there?) every day in my new role. I am learning new things, challenging myself, and having fun all the while. As crazy as the journey was, it brought me to where I needed to be.

Lauren Winkler

Senior Product Designer

Lauren graduated from Penn State with a degree in Computer Science and took the path of a software engineer in the Financial Tech Industry at the start of her career. As a design “unicorn” (a designer who can code) she strives to shape, build, and deploy beautiful experiences that have meaning and impact. In her free time she loves being outdoors, reading new books, working with different mediums art, and trying new recipes. She has a secret passion for interior decorating and is always on the lookout for cool DIY house projects.

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