Ah, the challenge of writing a coherent biography from a life that doesn’t follow a traditional narrative. Where to start?
I grew up in Michigan, with no exciting childhood traumas to speak of. My high school didn’t have an AP program, so they shuffled off “gifted” students whose parents would do the paperwork — thanks, Mom! — to a nearby local branch of the University of Michigan. That’s why I started taking Latin at 15, and spent a lot of my teen years taking college art classes. I pursued this unfortunate choice through actual college, majoring in Classics and also in theater, where I worked in the costume shop and as a part-time stage manager.
All of which is why (in part) tech is my second career. My first career was as an academic; if you’re a good Classics student in college, it’s assumed that you should go to graduate school, so I did. I took the opportunity to move somewhere warmer, and got my degree from the University of Texas. As a grad student, I taught Latin and did research on (I am not making this up) the ancient equivalent of Everybody Loves Raymond. That also allowed me to get into humor theory, which I will still geek out about if you let me.
When I graduated and got a job at Vanderbilt, I also got to teach more interesting classes: Greek Mythology, Gender in the Ancient World, Romans in Film, and Humor, Ancient to Modern. I really enjoyed the teaching, and IMHO it was my first exercise in design thinking and user research, though I wouldn’t have called it that at the time. I also enjoyed the opportunities it gave me: I’ve been on two archaeological digs in Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, which meant I got to live in Rome for two whole summers. It was about as glorious as you’d imagine. But perhaps my favorite achievement was co-translating an ancient Greek play, Women In Congress — which I eventually put online — and seeing it put on at UCLA.
What I didn’t like about the academic life are things that are now (I think) common knowledge, but weren’t talked about much in 2008: the low pay for a job that requires long hours and a lot emotional labor; the statistical improbability of getting a permanent job; the fact that you have zero choice where to live; and the generally poor effect all of these have on your mental health.
So, In 2008 I decided to retrain myself for a job in technology. I’d already made some HTML sites — the earliest artifact I can find is this site I made for a conference I organized — and I enjoyed the challenge. I began with Lynda.com, which is still my favorite training resource. I was lucky enough to get a remote job rating website usability for Google (via WorkforceLogic, as all their documents required me to say), so you might say I’ve been user-centered from the start.
In 2010 I moved back to Austin, which I’d missed desperately, and started with freelance and contract roles, working mostly with WordPress. Along the way I decided I wasn’t quite a visual designer, and in 2012 I was hired as an Interactive Producer with the Texas Tribune. I was promoted to Director of Technology in 2012, and spent two happy years creating culture change.
What else? For fun, I knit, write, and sew — and in fact, 4 of my #FirstSevenJobs were sewing-related. It’s yet another way to apply design thinking. And I’m just going to admit it: I like movies and TV, not in any sophisticated critical sense, but as a way to let my mind shut itself off. And food. I love food. I used to cook a lot more, and in grad school in particular, it was a form of entertainment, but these days I’m more interested in keeping things simple and planning.
At heart, I think I still am, and always will be, a translator. Whether it’s finding the perfect phrase to translate a Latin word, or making an ancient Greek joke funny in English, or explaining to non-tech folks what I’m doing in code…I just like making sure people understand things.
For that reason, I’m less interested in coding, for the moment, because code isn’t an end in itself. I’ve become more interested in how we can use technology to make things better for people, and that includes the people who are making the technology itself. I care about communication, documentation, transparent workflows, maintenance, and other non-sexy things that sound boring but make life better for everyone.
Anyway, like any foreign language, tech is a means to express everything else. It’s the newest liberal art.
And this is blog is tech. In translation.