by Amy Schmidt
Maya and I started our internships on the same day. She was a product design intern, and I was a software engineer intern. She invited me to lunch the first week and we formed a bond off the bat. We were both young women entering the tech field in Chicago, joining a team of mostly men. Since then, we both joined the company as full time employees and I’ve seen Maya transform into a strong, talented leader in design at our company. When you mention Maya’s name, everyone is complimentary and quick to brag on her behalf. She also pioneered Women@TC, which is an internal organization that works to cultivate an inclusive and diverse workplace and provides mentorship and community for women at our company.
I sat down with Maya to have a raw and honest conversation with her about her place as a black woman in tech, exposing others to the field, and what she hopes for the future of design.
Amy Schmidt: First of all, how and why did you become a product designer?
Maya Patterson: I originally started school thinking I was going to be a lawyer, so I went into pre-law and I was ridiculously bored. I realized I didn’t want to write papers and read legal documents for my entire existence. So, I had to figure out what was going to be exciting and challenge me throughout the course of my career.I also wanted to go into a field that would pay the bills.
My mom owns a tech company and they had just recently hired an information architect. After my freshman year of college my mom asked me if I wanted to shadow her [the information architect] for the summer and learn about this field called “user experience”. At that point my understanding of user experience was some blend between coding and graphic design. I was obsessed with Apple and I liked how simple their products were to use, I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but they had a brilliant user experience. When I was young, I didn’t think I was smart enough to code and I also didn’t think I was artistic enough to do graphic design, but user experience sounded different. I interned, and loved it, but I didn’t know what I was going to do about my degree. I realized there was no direct path to get into user experience at my school, so with the help of my school advisor, I decided psychology could work. I supplemented that with freelance work for friends of friends or internships to start building my portfolio.
AS: How did you learn the skills to start freelancing without a degree in user experience or design?
MP: That was actually really challenging. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to build a website. I asked my mentors from my first internship and they introduced me to WordPress and Wix. I was in that middle ground where I had working knowledge of user experience skills like, UX research, strategy, and information architecture because that just requires your brain and pen and paper, but I didn’t know how to get more real world experience. It was really a struggle. I was reading a ton, going on UX Beginner, UX Booth, Mashable and hacking together anything I could. I wouldn’t charge anybody I just wanted to see what I could make based off of their problem and take their product from the beginning to end of a UX solution.
AS: We both have mothers in tech and engineering, and I know I wouldn’t have known it was an option going into college had I not had someone in my life encouraging me to consider it. Was your experience going into the field similar and how do you feel the tech field could be better represented and exposed to people?
MP: That’s a huge point of passion for me. How do we start to build an understanding of what the tech field is and who can come into it (anybody) and what are the different roles available. Exposing people, specifically minorities, to user experience in general. You’re right. I would not know about this field at all if it weren’t for the fact that my mom is in technology. To be a UX designer, you need to be a critical thinker, listen to people’s needs, listen to what they’re saying they’re frustrated with, watch their behaviors, and then patch together what they say they need and what they actually need. And you need a sense of creativity. I went to a predominantly white institution and it was a private school so the black students were really close knit and I basically knew everybody. I knew all these powerful black creative thinkers but nobody knew about this field, which was astounding. People think tech is cool but don’t see themselves as a tech person…I didn’t think I was technical either.
I’ve been using Twitter a lot to show people my day to day as a designer and to show them anyone can go into tech. You don’t have to have a super technical degree or be super artistic, you just need to have a passion for solving problems. If I meet people, especially black women, who are struggling at all trying to find out where they fit in, I tell them about the design field. Usually people will come back and tell me after I told them [about design] that they started seeing UX being thrown around more. Once they understand what it is, they might realize they are interested in the field. It opens the door for people to know these fields exist and know they can be a part of them.
AS: You were the first black woman and the youngest person on the tech team when you started. How did you make sure your voice and perspective were being heard?
MP: It was really challenging at first. I remember you and I having these conversations. Being new to the workforce in general, there’s a lot of things you’re not taught in school about office politics, how to give presentations, and how to have your opinions be not only heard but also respected as much as the men in the room. All these subtleties that you would never know how to prepare yourself for. I felt all of that, and then some because I was the only black person, and the only black woman. I would leave work every day and I loved my job and I loved exactly what I was doing, but it felt like I had to put on this persona when I came to work. It sucked to feel like I needed to put on this face and be more passive and tone down my personality. I feared that I was going to be seen as the sassy black girl, which is something I’ve dealt with growing up [people calling me bossy or sassy] because I have an opinion. Or people mocking the way I speak because I use slang, which happens all the time. That’s just what we do at home. Why can’t I take that into the workplace and be respected just the same?
I became really angry and frustrated. After some months I realized it was actually affecting my work. I didn’t feel like myself and wasn’t putting the right amount of creativity into my work. I wanted to talk to somebody about it but I didn’t know who. I had a mentor here at work who was a white man and very much so a superior and we took a chance on each other. He asked me a question that opened the door to me talking to him about being a woman in tech because there was only seven of us on a team of around 50. I also talked to him about being black and how it hurt that there was no leadership talking about diversity. Our HR department gave a talk about what our company’s demographics were and they totally left out race. He was really supportive and told me to make whatever changes I thought needed to be made. It was scary and I didn’t know what to do, so I started with talking to other women like you about starting a women’s group. That group has now grown into a pretty established organization.
I also took the pressure off myself of trying to assimilate into the dominant work culture. I stopped listening to everything I was taught growing up about being the respectable black person. Things like wearing my hair back and making sure my curls weren’t too big. I was done with that. I wanted to be myself. Since then I feel like I am respected more. I have the tools to be able to express my opinions because I’m much more confident and comfortable at work. I just feel happier. However, I’ve read about experiences where people try to do what I’m doing now and they get punished for it, so it’s definitely still a balance. I do think there is a wave of people now being themselves unapologetically. I think companies should embrace that because it brings about a lot of creativity and diversity in thought.
AS: Yeah, and with social media being what is it, at least there’s a voice for people who want to speak up and if their company reacts negatively to it, you have a platform to tell your story. Women and minorities can speak about their experiences and be validated now more than they ever have. What goals do you have for your career?
MP: I’m still figuring it out right now. What they don’t tell you is that when you get into the workforce, there is not a clear-cut path to success. You have to create your own path. Long term: I dream about running my own company or owning product design at an established company. Recently, I’ve been following all these really amazing designers and black women. One of my mentors from college is now the CEO of Blavity, and we have a lot of similarities. I look up to her because I can relate to a lot of things she does. She created this huge, impactful and relevant product that is super black, super cool, and super powerful. It’s not that I want to recreate Blavity but it does make me think about what would make me happy in my career. For one, if I could work with another black designer at some point in my life that would be amazing. More so, to own a company that is full of black people, I would love that as well. Just a diverse group in general. I’m still figuring it out, but I’d love to be somebody that people come to as an expert at not only design but also cultural design. I want to be a resource for other black designers and people who are not as privileged or don’t have as much opportunity as the typical Silicon Valley guy. I want to own a business that is about that.
AS: What do you mean by cultural design?
MP: I just came up with that on the spot but it sounds good.
AS: Agreed. So what’s next, with you and with your goal of getting more black people into tech?
MP: There’s a lot going on with me right now. At my job at Trunk Club, I gained a ton of responsibility so I’m really buckling down here to ship some awesome products and advance my design skills. I’m also a co-founder of a business that hasn’t shipped yet. It’s a travel service that will help you curate your travel experience. I’m also really passionate about exposing black people, especially black women, to design and connecting with other black designers. I’m super active on Twitter for that purpose and I’ve curated a list of black designers and black women from across the nation that I’m starting to connect with. I recently connected with someone and we had both read this article about 64 designers you should know and there were only two black people on it. So we decided to create our own list, our own resource. If you are on Twitter, if you are a black woman or a black designer, please contact me @MayaGPatterson.
AS: Are you going to put that list of black designers somewhere?
MP: I need help curating it. I’m always on the lookout for black designers and I just got added to this awesome Slack group which is filled with black people in tech. I want to know about people who are just entering into the design field, people who have questions, people who have been in the field for a while and are vets. I want to connect with all these people and start to build a curated space and a resource where people can see all these dope black people in tech doing dope things. People say there’s a pipeline problem, there’s really not and I’ll show you.