This interview is Episode 5 of the Nightingale Podcast Series moderated by KCL Women in STEM. Nightingale is hosted by Anel Yegemberdiyeva, a third-year Maths with Finance and Management student at King’s College London and the President of the KCL Women in STEM. The aim of this podcast is to inspire women currently studying a STEM degree to pursue their career further, helping them navigate the resources available to achieve their goals and excel within their chosen field, whether it’s a specific industry or in wider research.
For this Nightingale episode, Anel is joined by Ariana Ocampo, a 29-year-old UX Designer who is passionate about holistic product design, ethical technology and user-tested solutions that are both intuitive and inclusive, with 5 years of experience in the industry.
Ariana currently works at Softwire, a Gold Sponsor of KCL women in STEM. It is an independent software company with offices in London, Manchester and Cambridge. They deliver innovative, high-quality software solutions in a range of markets with clients including the BBC, the Department for Education and Google DeepMind.
In this episode, we discuss what it means to be a woman of colour in STEM, Ariana’s journey through education, how her experiences moulded her career and how she used them to her advantage to excel in her chosen field.
Why have you chosen psychology for your university degree and why did you drop out?
My initial degree was a joint honours degree in business management and psychology because I was always fascinated by human behaviour. I didn’t finish the degree or pursue a career as a psychologist but there’s no regret and I’m glad that I did not do so. I was really lucky to have a supportive family with me at that time. It was mostly because I no longer felt happy or satisfied from studying at university, so it was a straightforward decision for me to take a break. I took a sabbatical leave after my first year, but after experiencing all the volunteering work and being able to work in other fields, I decided not to go back. It is unconventional but there’s no right and wrong answer in how you decide to move forward with your education and career.
How did you feel about university education with regards to going into STEM careers at the moment?
Although I dropped out of my university education, I strongly recommend students to finish their university degree. Regardless of your career goals afterwards, the skills you earn in university, such as critical thinking, researching will be extremely useful in the future. In my opinion, education opens up many different opportunities and leads you to a more secure route, but it is also not a determining factor, not studying a STEM degree in university doesn’t stop you from going into a STEM career.
In 2015, you decided to go back to university (Berghs School of Communication) after getting some work experience, why did you make this decision?
Berghs School of Communication was a top tier school that I have always wanted to go to, but I never had it in my career plan. Between my university education at Glasgow and Berghs, I volunteered as a social media assistant and a journalist and gained all kinds of work experience, it was then I realized that I want to pursue a career in the field of communication. I realize that getting a diploma in relation to it is very important, and I honestly missed the classroom settings, so I went back to university. I chose digital as I always had an interest in technology, so it was a perfect fit between my creative side and my technological passions.
How did you utilize all the transferable skills you gained during sabbatical leave before you went on job searching?
I think that one of the biggest gains was my experience working in office culture even though I didn’t have a traditional full-time office job. I realized that time management was extremely important and upgrading my time management ability helped a lot when I worked as a freelancer after I finished my diploma. This also means that I was able to go into companies as an autonomous worker. Autonomy is very important for anyone working as a designer, especially in a heavily developer-oriented company.
Do you think having this extra experience helped you discover your passion and your career?
I ended up where I am now with some elements of luck, I liked the design aspect of digital technology, but I would not be able to achieve my current position if I haven’t completed my diploma or had those experiences or if I haven’t done a UX design module. I think your experience could take you in the direction that you are passionate about. Although we often get caught up with what we think we will do in the future, your future career is usually not what you have planned or expected.
What would be the top tips you give people who are feeling lost and trying to figure out what they need to do with their life?
1. Do not rush it, you could gradually figure it out over time.
2. Any decision you make today does not mean you cannot change it in the future.
3. Work and passion can be very different things but pursuing your interest is a good idea.
4. Do not limit yourself, the big career of tomorrow might not be a thing today, you can have a career in something that has not been invented yet, especially in such an age of rapid technological development and innovation.
Career as a UX designer
Role and career path
My first job in UX/UI design was at a small app agency, this was back in 2017 when the Cambridge Analytica scandal, General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) happened, and the ethical components of technology were largely questioned. I wanted to pursue a career within tech to affect the changes in technology. Tech was a very male-dominated industry, and it was at that time when various campaigns promoting inclusiveness in tech emerged, so that’s how I joined tech at a very pivotal moment in the industry.
I’m very fortunate to work for a company that really cares about employee’s work-life balance. As a UX designer, I work with mobile apps, web apps and so on. I would look at the problems this product is trying to solve, who are the users, what are their needs and from the outline, the requirements and figure out what are the business goals and needs for our clients. Most of my work focuses on producing a product direction and users which help other designers to come up with the visual part of the design. Although I have coding and HTML background knowledge, being a UX designer does not have to be very technical. I would say it is hugely beneficial to have programming knowledge as you can work more collaboratively with developers, but it’s not a specified requirement, everyone I know became a designer differently.
Skills and Abilities
Communication is a very crucial skill now as we’re working remotely. The skills set required for UX designers and app developers is different - as a designer you might have a very broad and holistic view, whereas the developer needs to consider every possible minor detail in the code, so communication between us is very important. Open communication, willingness to learn from others and even just understanding how the person you are working with does their job is the most valuable thing.
Try not to cry when dealing with failures
There’s no perfect project and there would always be room for improvement, so as a team, we will always try to learn from it, talk about team dynamics and try to figure out what are the possible actions we could take to negate mistakes in the future.
When facing failures, try not to cry. A lot of people in this industry are overachievers and they take failure very hard, including me. But you need to understand that you’re not perfect, nor the most experienced person. You need to remember that there is a support system in place and you’re not dealing with everything by yourself. The right thing to do is to reach out for help rather than going into the office trying to solve every challenge by yourself to prove your ability.
Looking back at your whole career journey up to this point, who inspired you?
My family is a big inspiration to me, the women in my family are very successful and focused on their career, which affected how I define the targets of my life. In terms of tech, rather than a specific person, I would say organizations that aim to further women’s career in STEM are my biggest inspiration as I could talk to other women in the network who are also working in tech.
Discrimination in the workplace
Have you faced discrimination being a woman of colour in STEM and how did you overcome it?
There is a degree of inevitability, I was quite fortunate that I haven’t faced any direct harassment, but there has always been an undercurrent of it. It was not as advertised as direct comments towards women but some things could be innocuous. For instance, conversation pieces that make you feel very uncomfortable. People who have not experienced discrimination wouldn’t be aware of it and it could be very small things, such as who your clients are directing their question to. In my experience, there were instances where I know I am the expert in the room, but they are asking the questions to male or white people.
When it comes to promotion, does the firm have policies to ensure you would be promoted the same way regardless of your gender and backgrounds?
We have a band system where we host quarterly reviews and we find out where we are at in terms of advancing to the next band, so promotions were conducted in a very structured way. In terms of responsibility, it is completely based on your ability and depending on what you are contributing to the company. I think there might be some association between how proactive people are and the gender discrepancy between how willing you’re to ask for opportunities. In a society that favours a certain group of people, those people may be more inclined and willing to ask for promotion opportunities and be more confident in doing so.
A lot of the time you are going to be more successful and easier to pursue higher goals if you’re being surrounded by high achievers. For instance, it is very common for men to recommend each other for jobs whereas in women networks because we are traditionally taught that we compete with each other, we won’t do this to the same extent, and I think we need to realize that if people around you do better you could open up more opportunities to yourself. Try to be the kind of person who lifts other people.
Do you think men are more confident than women in the workplace?
I don’t think there is a natural inclination for men to be more assertive or confident, but society is more accepting of assertiveness from men whereas assertive and opinionated women in the workplace are less accepted.
Final word of wisdom
You should never compare yourself to other people because you are comparing your own “behind the scenes” to their highlights. Don’t think you’re behind when you see young achievers and it’s okay to not have figured things out, especially when you’re still in university.
If you know what you want to do, do not be constrained by the thought that you need more experience and you need to be more senior when it comes to going for opportunities, you are never too inexperienced to pursue the things you want to do. Do not stress about your careers at this age.