Do you also have the feeling that time is running with the speed of light? Yesterday was the beginning of 2023 and today is already the end of April.
The second spring month is bringing to My Tech Journey the story of Jon Plummer. Jon has been a mentor at Tupu since the beginning and built a great long-term mentorship with his mentee. We are grateful for Jon's dedication and all the other mentors for giving their time to help diversity thrive in tech.
If you are in any tech role and can spare 1-2 hours per month to help wannabes, juniors or advanced techies, come join us as a mentor on Tupu.
If you find My Tech Journey stories useful and would also like to help others with yours, drop us an email at email@example.com .
And now let's focus on Jon's journey.
What do you currently do for work?
I direct the UX department at a small SaaS company.
What is your educational background?
In high school: science, math, graphics production, music. College: tours through math and biology, but eventually graduated with a BA Psychology, a BA in Anthropology, and a Master of Social Work. That last was super-irresponsible fiscally, but the skills proved useful in management and user research. I would not recommend purposefully taking this lengthy route to design.
"you had better arrive with the ability to learn quickly and adapt processes quickly"
When and how did you get started being interested about programming/tech industry, and how did you learn?
I've always been interested in computers. My first was an H-89 back in the early 1980s. But I didn't consider designing software as a possible career until there was an opportunity to move from desktop publishing (which I did while starving trying to get started as a social worker) to web design and development in 1999, as the dot-com bubble was first starting to heat up. It was a time when the design- and technical-knowledge bar to getting into web design was low, but you had better arrive with the ability to learn quickly and adapt processes quickly. Much later I worked in software alongside medical device engineers and industrial designers and broadened my purview into physical interaction and setup processes; I rarely found much literature that covered these areas usefully, but the thinking and tools are the same.
Which books/online courses/websites were helping you the most on your journey?
Anything by Bruce Tognazzini, Don Norman, or Alan Cooper; the O'Reilly series on HTML, JS, CSS, etc; the then-current writing on webmonkey by Jeff Veen et al, etc. This is mostly old or even out-of-date stuff by today's standards, and some of it is more technical than necessary. At some point, I took an in-person class at Cooper (RIP) which helped me add better interviewing and synthesis to my then-mostly usability-testing-dependent process.
How has mentorship played a role in your tech career?
I've never had a design mentor, but much of the time that hasn't mattered. I have had mentors help me understand the business context better, or understand management better, or help me pitch ideas to leadership better, and each of these has helped me be a more effective and integrated designer, manager, or leader.
What do you wish you had known when you started your career in tech? What advice would you give your younger self?
It's not so much something I wish I had known as something I wish I had been more comfortable with: if you see someone doing a thing you are interested in, ask them about it. Contrary to my nature at the time, after moving west after grad school, relentlessly working the network (by phone!) from just one or two contacts uncovered opportunities that helped me find my feet in social work and later in desktop publishing. When the web started to be a thing commercially, reaching out to Peter Merholz (way back when!) helped me form a plan to do some personal projects, make a portfolio site, and work some web/software design into my current job. Being completely honest in a job interview, what I had and had not done, could do and could not yet do, and was interested in, landed me an actual job in web design and front-end development.
How do I get experience doing a thing without a job doing the thing? By doing the thing anyway.
What would you recommend to someone who is interested in starting with coding/designing/managing, but doesn't know exactly where to start?
How do I get experience doing a thing without a job doing the thing? By doing the thing anyway. For design or coding I can think of two good places to start, and you probably should pursue both:
1) How can the application of a little design or coding enhance your current job?
Are there repetitive tasks that might be automated, information that could be brought together into a dashboard, metrics or research that might inform your work or the work of your team, places where quality might be improved through greater understanding or thoughtfulness? You can offer to do things, or just start to do them. You can learn a lot by applying new skills to something you already know about.
2) What parts of coding or design can you try with what you already have, on your own time?
I got started in design because I found desktop publishing tools fun to play with in college, and used them to make greeting cards, tee shirts, and to enhance my classwork. Playing with the tools in ways that scratched my own itches taught me skills that I could later apply to my work. In point 2 above, my daughter mentioned to me that she might be interested in filmmaking. I told her, "you have a phone, start making some films!" Getting started can be that easy. Your work might not be very good at first. That's fine. Keep going unless you find you don't like the process. Competence will come later.
Starting in management is a little different, but again I see two straightforward paths and it might be worthwhile to pursue both:
A) Offer to help/take ownership of small moments in your job where coordination is needed, process change is needed, or a problem needs to be sorted out.
This will give you experience talking to others to learn about a situation, proposing possible approaches, marshalling the effort of others, and delivering a result. This is managing! Managing in small ways leads to success managing in small ways, which leads to larger opportunities. The reward for good work is more work.
B) Volunteer with charitable or vocational organizations and offer to help in ways that are more like A above over time.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time? What are you curious about?
I have many hobbies lightly pursued: home repairs, playing jazz piano, cooking, weight training, listening to podcasts, reading non-fiction, and designing little buildable or printable improvements to other parts of my life; I'm not serious about any of them! I'm always interested in how a thing is made, how something strange or broken got that way, the twists and turns of thinking behind something we take for granted. I felt GREAT last weekend when I repaired our couch with one $2 trip to the hardware store, using tools and other supplies that I already had on hand. It's a good feeling.
I'm at my best when I am helping
I enjoy being a mentor; that would be enough. I'm at my best when I am helping. But being a mentor also reminds me of how I think about things when the pressure is off, and that's useful to me as a design leader managing upwards in organizations that are not as conversant with research and design as they should be (which is almost all of them).