Q&A: Making the switch to tech

A conversation with a college professor led to a career change.

The winner of the 2017 Rising Star Award last month at the Women of Innovation Awards was Bailey Anderson, a User Experience Designer at Principal.

Anderson, 25, says if it weren’t for a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, she’d be an accountant. Instead, she’s four years into a career in the tech community and a volunteer with several nonprofit organizations promoting diversity within the community.

She talked with Clay & Milk about that decision to change her major, how to better diversify the industry and how her company Principal helps:

First can you talk about your role at Principal?

BA: I’m a User Experience Designer at Principal.

My team is responsible for the look and feel of our applications and websites on the retirement side of the house. We make sure that we are using the right terminology and things people understand, and make sure the overall experience is easy and something people will continue to use. I started as an IT intern at a different part of the company and have been in this role for four years full-time. I love it.

How’d this happen?

BA: Kind of an interesting story, I started off as an accounting major at UNI (Northern Iowa) and it wasn’t really the right fit for me personally. In an intro to management information systems class, I had an amazing professor who mentioned there aren’t many women in the technology/management information systems role. He said I was doing really well and that I should take the next class.

I enjoyed that next class and ended up changing my major to MIS and applying for my internship at Principal. During that internship, I was exposed to the field of UX and that’s where I decided user experience was a niche that met my interest and needs.

At the time I didn’t consider myself a super technical person. After being in the field, I realized it’s something I am passionate about and I want to make experiences better for everybody. It’s frustrating to hear family members say they aren’t good with computers, and they are hard to use.

Most of the time, that’s not really on them, that’s the overall design and user experience.

Do you have a typical day?

BA: I don’t know that I have a typical day. I go to a lot of meetings, do a lot of prototyping, research and usability testing. It kind of depends on the project, so it’s a nice mix of everything.

What can make the user experience better?

BA:  Part of the user experience is following overall web standards. You want to keep a search bar and logout button/navigational buttons in a consistent spot because many people use Facebook or Google, and have expectations because of it.

We like to follow web standards for consistency and not try to reinvent the wheel unless it’s necessary while still pushing creative boundaries. Also, a big thing that can be done is talking to real users of your sites and apps. Their feedback is extremely invaluable and will quickly point to challenges they experience.

How diverse is the office and workplace?

BA: In my experience, the user experience field is fairly diverse. When I was in college and in those MIS classes, there would be less diversity in terms of gender. When I made the switch, I didn’t really know it was a larger problem. After walking into a large lecture hall and seeing a lot more male faces than female, it was surprising and it started to hit home for me

So what can be done to make it more diverse?

BA: I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I had a Myspace account in middle school, I did some low-level HTML coding to design my profile layout.  I was always on the computer and considered myself savvy with technology. However, in growing up and deciding what I wanted to do, I never considered a career in IT. Even though I was interacting with technology constantly, it wasn’t on my radar because I simply did not see or hear people I knew of doing it for their job and looked at what my role models were doing. Because of that, I think we can make a big impact by providing women role models of all races for high school, middle school and elementary school girls——so they have the opportunity to see leaders in those fields that are like them. It’s also about giving them that exposure to technology but showing them it might not just be coding, and that there’s a huge realm of opportunity. IT lives within the music industry, IT lives within the fashion world, there’s so much more.

And there are plenty of resources available?

BA: You can learn IT skills without having to take a formal class and can get started a lot quicker than what people might think. There’s a lot of great tutorials online that can get you up and running. Many communities have meet-ups, groups to join, and nonprofits that are there to help.

It was very daunting for me to switch my major because it feels so intimidating to start. It felt like something that would be very challenging because I associated IT with coding in dark rooms with black command window screens I had seen portrayed in Hollywood.

How did you get over that hurdle?

BA: You just have to go for it. I had great mentors in the MIS department who helped me push through it and provided me with people to talk to like other women in the major. Joining the MIS club at school and looking at resources online was also extremely beneficial in seeing what a career in IT would look like.

How does Principal promote diversity?

BA: In my experience, I have found Principal to care a lot and do a great job of promoting inclusion and diversity. I feel as though the culture is exceptional and unmatched with its support of employees through various employee resource groups, innovation events like Code Jam, groups like Women in IT (WIT), and volunteer opportunities.

I’m in the WIT group at Principal and serve on the cabinet. We help promote events, bring in speakers, and provide a forum for women to support each other throughout the different roles in IT at Principal.

Bailey Anderson
Bailey Anderson (far left) works with students during a Code Jam event.

Are you involved in the tech community outside of work?

BA: I do some, I’m on the board for Reboot Iowa, which is a nonprofit that Antoinette Stevens started. The goal is to provide opportunities for people who may be interested in getting into the technology field, and just don’t know how to start.

We provide workshops, and can be that first step for people who may find it daunting and are looking to move into an IT career.

Are you seeing changes?

BA: There’s a lot that is going on in the community which is exciting, especially through The Technology Association of Iowa,  HyperStream and Tech Journey, where groups are working directly with students.

Additionally, I’m part of the Girls Who Code initiative which aims to narrow the gender gap in tech. We have class each week, and try to provide outside experiences and opportunities for the girls. We are going on a field trip to Iowa State to their virtual reality lab later this month. Our mission is to show girls different careers in tech and to build a sisterhood through a sense of community. If they decide not to go into tech, that’s ok, but at least it’s on their radar for the future.