Women in Tech Interview with Amber, Senior Designer at Amazon
Women in Technology WNY is here to feature the stories of women in our local community and the various technology roles they fill, traditional and non-traditional. TechBuffalo is here to highlight these women to encourage others to not only explore technology opportunities but to take advantage of them. Amber sat down with me and talked about her amazing journey around the world, finding her community in Buffalo, and making her process work.
Tell me a little about yourself and your background.
Yeah, I am a senior user experience designer at Amazon’s UX lab, which is a product and services design, incubation team that does R&D. I get to play around with all different types of modalities, so sight, sound, vision, touch, all the different things that you can integrate into a product design experience. I get to kind of go across the board, which is cool.
So, in terms of my background, I grew up bouncing around overseas because of my dad’s job. He was one of the global executive directors of engineering for Mattel Toys. I thought every kid grew up the way that I did. We moved a lot. I lived in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the list goes on. I played around with a lot of the prototypes and tools around the house, there were used to build the toys of the 80s and 90s. That kind of laid the foundation for what I got interested in school.
We ended up back in the US and I didn’t really understand kids my own age here and I wasn’t really making any friends, so I ended up going online, totally plugging in and becoming a giant computer nerd throughout middle school and high school. By the time I was 16, I had like 6 different servers in my bedroom. I had Linux and Slack and BSD boxes, a mail server, websites, and I was spending my weekends making telephony equipment, having LAN parties and stuff like that.
I eventually got into some legal trouble with computers and a judge told me that I should do something useful with my life instead of hacking around on phones and computers all the time. And I was like “I totally hear you, I’m all for that, sounds like a great idea coming from you.” So somehow, you know, I’m sure there are many circumstances of my privilege, I was able to get out of that situation and remain employable. I ended up going to college and for my undergrad, I did industrial design and while I was there, I was trying to learn how to engage with people a little differently. I started taking some communications classes and those professors were like maybe you should join the debate team. I joined the debate team and that was super fun. They let you travel around the country and I became a national debate champion with my partner over time. It was interesting but I wasn’t going to make a career out of it, so I was done.
Then I got into a grad program on a scholarship at UCSD to get a mixed media visual arts MFA. That let me bring all my transmedia art practice together. I was doing electronic sculpture that was interactive. I was doing wearable stuff and at the same time, I was working full time in a UX job at the Raytheon Websense Security Labs down in San Diego, which I had gotten because I had that background in computer security in Telephony. I really learned a lot of my foundational skills there from people that had Ph.D.’s in human-computer interaction, and that’s kind of where I got my UX training.
My career kind of developed from there. I ended up going to a start-up with some of the engineers from Security Labs that recruited me. We took a sentiment analysis classifier from like 0 to product launch in eight months and then Apple acquired the company and launched face ID and Animoji’s which was pretty big, now that I look back on it. From that startup, I was recruited by Amazon.
I think one of the things that kind of flavored my career development was being a special Ed kid throughout elementary and middle school. I didn’t stop taking special Ed classes until 6th grade. I was held back for being nonverbal and had plenty of reading issues. They gave me a ton of extra art classes to help me express my thinking so, I think that influenced what I ended up doing career-wise as well.
How does someone who has been around the world, living and working, come to Buffalo?
It was something that my husband and I had thought about for a very long time. My husband is from Buffalo, so he has friends and family here. He always told me when I first met him
. that he’s never moving back to Buffalo. I kept seeing what was going on in terms of tech investment in Buffalo. I saw Z-80 labs was spinning up some stuff, TechStars was moving into the area, there were several other accelerators. 43 North had a lot of content online and it looked like people were looking at the area for longer-term development, which is interesting to me because sitting around Seattle and Silicon Valley, a lot of the ideas and leadership seemed really stale. It was not a great culture in terms of developing something new and leapfrogging ahead in technology. I feel like being part of the building stage of things would be a better long-term option for my personal growth and interest in community development.
We kept moving for these tech jobs, but we didn’t really have any community or friends or people that we could develop longer-term relationships with. So at some point, I was like we should get a house near Buffalo, where your friends are and work remotely. I had briefly left Amazon for Apple and I wanted to return to Amazon but working remotely. I reached out and they were ok with it. This was pre-COVID-19 lockdown by about 8 months. Now it seems old hat being remote. So yeah, that’s how we moved and found a home that we could actually afford compared to what was going on in California and we have friends and family. And you know, there’s a growing community of people and that’s way more interesting and it’s a better quality of life to me.
Can you describe what your job entails? What is it that UX designers do?
Yeah, well this current job that I have is probably a little more drastically different than all the previous UX jobs I’ve had because it’s more R&D focused and more speculative. But previously I was doing a lot of straight from concept to launch product development. That involved a lot of customer research; Ethnographic research, data analytics on usage patterns evaluating customers’ needs and wants, and trying to facialize or give a face to the back-end system. So, I basically create the map between that back-end architecture and the front-end interactions like buttons, voice, gesture, or controls that people use to interact with products. That theoretically makes technology usable and enjoyable by people.
I think maybe it’s just because I was trained a little differently by some folks with human-computer interaction backgrounds. There was a lot of industrial psychology and like old school human-machine interaction courses that they likely had to take. Sometimes I flip my approach and tend to step back in the process a little bit deeper in the technology stack and the actual interface or UI portion of the design is something I get to towards the latter part of my process. For the most part.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
Um, my favorite aspect of my job… That’s a tough one. I think it has to be that moment when you hand over a prototype to somebody that hasn’t seen it before and they go “Oh my God, can I have it?” And you’re like, yes! It’s just super exciting to make that connection with somebody’s own experience and have them super excited and see value in this thing that you just poured part of your life into in the hopes that it might be valuable to somebody. I get to focus on products that could be valuable to people, which is nice. I spent time designing products for people with disabilities. It’s become increasingly valuable to me personally because folks in my life are acquiring as they get older as everybody does. So now, I feel like I can help.
If someone was interested in becoming a UX designer, what background do you recommend they have? Should they be college-educated? Could they take online classes? What are your recommendations?
I don’t think you need a college degree to be a UX designer. You can be an amazing UX designer without a college degree. It’s really about getting hands on and making prototypes that you can share with somebody else while documenting your process so you can share that as well. Any method that you can use to organize your thoughts and practice around learning how to create prototypes, whether it’s a clickable, kind of smoke and mirrors version using some technology like Figma or Axure. You don’t necessarily have to know how to code, but you could. You know some people like to do it that way. Some people don’t. It depends on how your brain works. If you want to take a boot camp through like General Assembly or the Nielsen Norman Group, several groups have great online boot camps. I would recommend that people try and take at least one or two boot camps. But really, it’s just all about generating material that’s shareable and generating as much of it as possible and keep doing that and building on top of the last one so your skills develop and the concepts that you can produce change in evolve overtime. And then follow people on social media that are influential in this space and look at their content and learn from that.
Through your years of experience, what do you wish you would have known getting into the tech industry?
Let’s see, I think I would say one of the biggest things is to keep in mind that the technology that you’re working with is always going to be changing. And it’s going to change faster and faster the longer you stay in tech, and it doesn’t really matter. The part that matters is your ability to take that technology and use your own process and method with it, and mine happens to be human-centered design. Understanding my process, my methodology and being able to document and share that with other people is the only reason that I am valuable in my role. It’s not because I know this latest coding language or I know this latest tool, because those are constantly changing. I would say really focus on your own individual process and being able to document that in a shareable way. I wish I had focused on that more early on in my career instead of going after every new trendy tool and coding language because it doesn’t make that much of a difference in the long term. Unless you want to go extremely deep in one area and become hyper-specialized which I did for a little while. It’s better just to focus on your own process and methodology for the longer term.
Thanks for that! Lastly, as a woman in technology, what advice would you give to other women looking to pursue a career in the tech industry?
I would say make sure that you get good at maintaining your network of mentors and identifying allies in the workplace early on. There are going to be some pivotal moments where you’re in some meetings and something happens and you’re like, “Was it just me or is that like completely not cool?”. Then there’s going to be allies in the room that see that too and if you know them and you are on the same level in terms of communication and mutual respect in the office, then you have a backup in that meeting and you’ve got a network of people to talk with when facing hard situations. Getting good at understanding who is a good ally and who is a good mentor is super important. And keep in mind that mentorship is supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship. So going people who are pros and saying, hey, I’ve got 20 questions for you and not being able to share anything with them and return is OK, but at some point, those people have to start saying no to folks because they’ve got a finite amount of time and if they don’t get anything out of the mentoring relationship they can’t take on as many of them and have to say no, so keep that in mind. Have something to contribute to the relationship.
If you have the chance to chat with Amber, I highly recommend it! You can learn more about her on her LinkedIn. If you are interested in being interviewed for our Women in Tech series, please email Cydney at email@example.com.