Pivoting At 40

From Waitress to Digital Experience Designer

(Those jobs are more similar than you think!)

I went to college so long ago we barely used email. My degree is in English. I played Atari as a kid, but that was just about the extent of my experience with computers until the Internet became a thing (and to be honest, I was kind of late to that party, too). So if you had asked me as recently as four years ago where I thought I might be working today, the words, “At Asheville-based, tech startup Anthroware, as a user experience (UX) designer for custom software applications” would not even have been in my vocabulary.

What does a UX designer do?
Maybe those words aren’t in your vocab, either. User experience designers follow a process to create the right software tools for specific users. It’s my job to learn directly from the people I’m designing for about the details that matter the most to them, to make sure the product we build gets it right.

One step, and the next…
I moved to Asheville in 1996, and had been working mostly in the service industry. By 2014, I had been trying to figure out my next step for a while. On a friend’s advice, I decided to explore web design. I found a program online called Skillcrush that offered an affordable three-month introduction to design and coding basics. It was a great start, but I wanted a little more practice before I started creating people’s websites for money. I searched around for a supplementary program, and found General Assembly, a worldwide tech school with a new campus in Atlanta. I applied for the Web Developer program.

While I waited for it to begin, I continued to research the industry, reading everything I could find. One of the books was The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. It changed my trajectory; I enrolled in the UX Design Immersive instead. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Because I wasn’t looking for my next job; I was looking for my work. That book made everything click into place: How everything is designed, even the things we don’t think about, and often in ways we don’t notice. It became clear to me that our experiences are the products of design decisions people made, that design is a toolkit for shaping the future we want with compassion and intent.

When I returned to Asheville after three months in Atlanta, I was a little worried about whether I would be able find a job in my new field here. I began looking for work, and to stay sharp I signed up for Asheville Startup Weekend, a 48-hour hackathon. There I met Jon Jones, co-founder and president of Anthroware, who was participating as a mentor. I spent the next two days putting my new skills to the test, helping to create a prototype for an app designed to support visual and musical artists, and ended up a sleep-deprived member of the winning team.

I did find work in Asheville, but it wasn’t quite the right fit. A year later, when I was looking for a new job, a mutual friend put me back in touch with Jon. As luck would have it, Anthroware was in need of a UX designer. They were looking for someone with much more experience, but my work at the hackathon convinced them to give me a chance. Just over a year later, I’m leading UX initiatives with Anthroware’s biggest clients.

Every lesson applies
My journey to design might seem like an odd path to an unlikely destination, but I’ve found that much of my experience applies. My studies in literature taught me how narratives shape our understanding of information, and the importance of context and details in conveying meaning. It turns out that an understanding of the power of language is really helpful when I’m working to organize information so it makes sense to the people using it.

I also worked for a few years as a member of the editorial collective with the Asheville Global Report, an independent newspaper published weekly back in the early- to mid-oughts. My experience working with this all-volunteer community organization informs my ethical center as a designer. I’m designing for people, after all, and I’m responsible for the work I put into the world; it’s important to me that it tips the scales to good.

And of course, I mentioned my lengthy career in the service industry – you may recognize me from such places as Malaprop’s café, or the Early Girl Eatery. Serving people in this way taught me how valuable it is to be able to pick up on the things people don’t say, the things they may not even realize they want or need. Those unspoken things can make or break an experience, whether it’s breakfast with friends, or the app you use to find a good place to eat in a city you’ve never been to before.

Let people help
I did my homework, but I owe the ability to take this leap to everyone who supported me as I navigated such a major life change. My designer friend, who first told me I’d be great at it – My husband, who held down the fort alone for a whole summer, kept us afloat financially, and visited me so I wouldn’t get too homesick – My parents, who were proud of me for going back to school (again) and who even helped out with the finances (again) – My best pal, who told me that I was awesome and encouraged me every time I called her overwhelmed by the workload and the newness of it all.

Nobody could make the decision for me, but so many people helped remove obstacles, clearing the way for me to push forward. It can be hard to ask for help, but I think most of us are just waiting for the opportunity to be asked. We all need each other. Let people help you, and you can help them, too.

Kendra grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and moved to Asheville in 1996. She lives just this side of Fairview, with her husband Darren and two cats. You can reach her at kendra.sarvadi@anthroware.com or find her on LinkedIn.

“Tech” is a very broad term for a big industry that needs folks with many different interests and skillsets. Learning to code is absolutely something you can do, but if that doesn’t appeal to you, it’s still worth a look! Get started here:
In Asheville
Tech Talent South

General Assembly (Atlanta)
The Center Centre (Chattanooga)


Recommended reading:
The Design of Everyday Things
Design for Real Life
Design for the Real World

Kendra Sarvadi
Written by Kendra Sarvadi