The ‘Limbo Zone’
A brave new mom plunges into UX Design after a decade in career limbo
In March of 2017, Emily Alpert was at a loss of what to do with herself. She had given birth to her son six months prior, and while she loved her new role of motherhood she felt ready to flex her work muscles again. The problem was, she couldn’t bring herself to return to the non-profit campaign world that she’d spent her entire adult life specializing in.
In fact, for the past 10 years she had been trying—quite unsuccessfully—to leave it. “I wanted to explore and do something different, something more creative,” Emily says. “But the only thing I seemed qualified for was exactly what I had been doing.”
She calls that entire decade the ‘limbo zone’. It started while Emily worked at Oxfam America in Washington, DC. She resolved to change careers, but when an opportunity fell into her lap to move to London while staying in the same career, she couldn’t pass it up.
It was several more years before she left the non-profit campaign world. “I needed time to figure out what I wanted to do,” she says. “So my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I went to Spain and lived on a farm outside of Granada for a few months.”
Though the downtime in the countryside refreshed her spirit, Emily returned to London with no clearer direction. She dabbled in some graphic design courses before going to school to be a pastry chef. But when she learned that the fate of her work visa depended on getting a well-paying job, she faltered. “Graphic design and pastry school don’t exactly fit that bill,” she says ruefully.
That was when the non-profit campaign world lured her back. “I went to work for a professor at Imperial College London to do advocacy work in Europe,” she says. “And after that I managed a 2 million Euro grant with over 40 people across multiple continents and disciplines.” It appeared she was all in again. But, besides the work visa situation, Emily had a more pressing reason to earn money: she and her husband were adding to their little family of two.
Emily left the non-profit world again, this time for motherhood. And she had hoped rerouting her focus from career to baby for a while might shed some light on what her next move should be. But now that she had a 6-month-old and a hunger to get working again, she still had a resume tailored to non-profit campaigning and no bright ideas.
At a loss, she began looking for freelance projects with a communications or marketing angle to them. But her campaign experience wasn’t transferring well. What’s more, her attempt to recreate a portfolio-style CV brought about an awkward moment at an informational interview. Having been unable to find any visual aspects of her past work, Emily crammed large amounts of text—albeit, artfully—into one page. “I didn’t realize how difficult it was to read,” she says. “This interviewer very politely said ‘Umm, I can’t read this on mobile—what were you thinking?’”
It was then that Emily realized her approach wasn’t working. It was time to try something else. “It came full circle that I was trying to be something and do something that I didn’t have a passion for,” she says. “That had come through more than I had hoped.”
The ‘aha’ moment
The epiphany that so many career drifters wait for—the ‘aha’ moment—came for Emily one morning in September of 2017.
She was talking to her husband, a full-stack web developer, about work she was doing for her consultancy, Woo Advisors. “It involved picking out typography for my website and laying it on the page,” Emily says. “And he said, ‘Oh, that’s what a UX Designer does!’”
She quickly learned that UX involved more than just typography and placement. “I started reading all the things UX entails and right away I knew it was perfect for me,” Emily says. “It’s creative and analytical at the same time.”
Now the obvious problem was how to change her specialty to UX Design while playing the starring role of ‘mom’.
A viable option
Emily got to surveying her options for learning UX Design, and it after a meeting with RED Academy London that she became optimistic about her situation. “They seemed like they would be supportive of me and my lifestyle at the time,” she says. “They said they would work with me and that we’d figure it out one day at a time.”
That was encouraging considering the response she had received from other institutes. “Elsewhere it was more like ‘Well, we can’t tell you what the workload is going to be like. You’re just going to have to do 20 hours of work outside of class regardless,’” she recalls. “It was a harsh tone compared to the welcoming, fuzzy feeling that I got from RED.”
Besides making her feel like school was viable with a baby, Emily saw promise in getting some real industry experience. “I felt that being able to work with real clients was invaluable,” she says. “It felt like I would get the opportunities and skill sets that would be valuable in the marketplace.”
Emily was sold on RED. And yet, despite finally making a decision about her next move, she was nervous. “I felt like it was a big risk,” she says. “I thought, ‘Omigosh what if I spend all this money and I’m no closer to finding a career?’”
The best she could do was jump in and find out.
The three month push
There’s no denying: the UX Designer program at RED Academy was one massive three month push for Emily. “It was hard doing it with a baby,” she admits. “There were some very long days towards the end of the sprint.” But, besides her husband rallying to support her throughout the process, her classmates were supportive as well. “They were willing to work with me to figure out how to divide the workload,” she says. “I’d have to leave right after class to pick my son up from nursery, and couldn’t pick up doing any work until 8pm.”
Despite worrying that she would be out of place, it turned out Emily was amongst a diverse demographic in her class. “There were nine people in the cohort—half were in their 30s and one person older than me,” she says. “And then some younger people in their 20s. Everyone was really mature and we all had a great time.”
As Emily put her head down and worked hard, she saw her knowledge of UX expanding at an accelerated rate. Soon she could toss away her awkward CV and replace it with a far more impressive application package. “I’m happy with what I ended up producing as a portfolio and CV after RED,” she says.
Talking to strangers
Then came time for the job search. As Emily puts it, “an agonizing, tortuous, painful experience.” She had always found job searching to be that way—which is rather relatable for most people. “It puts me outside of my comfort zone, going to events and trying to network with people,” she explains. “But this time around was better, because at least I knew what I was after. Still—I had to go up and talk to strangers.”
When it came time for interviews and fielding job offers, Emily came across a new and unfamiliar pain point. “There was a week where I had interviews at two or three other places,” she says. “I needed to know really quickly whether or not we’d be moving forward. It was a new situation for me, I’d never been offered two jobs at one time.” And in the end, she had to practice letting a potential employer down easy. “I got offered a job and went back and declined it,” she remembers. “I felt really terrible about that.”
But through all stages of the gruelling job hunt, Emily felt happy to be able to lean on RED’s career coach. “That was really helpful. I like life coaching stuff in general,” Emily says. “I got feedback on my CV and portfolio, and they gave me advice when I got dual job offers.”
The jackpot of juggling acts
It took four solid months of hustling—“London’s UX scene is very competitive right now,” Emily says. But she came out of the job search on top. She’s three months into her role as UX/UI Designer at Vodafone, where she’s working on redesigning their checkout process. “It’s a good learning process, I feel very supported by my UX team,” she says. “It’s a collaborative environment. Everyone is working together to tackle challenges.”
The risk of jumping into the unknown at RED, in fact, paid off. “I wouldn’t want to do it again exactly, but it was worth it,” she laughs. We can see why. Her new and creatively fulfilling career is more than she had hoped for. “I feel like I got so lucky. I ended up getting a salary that was much higher than what they told us to prepare for. Plus, the company has lots of good benefits, and my team was so nice and welcoming.”
Of course, even with a jackpot of a career, juggling two full-time jobs—UX Designer and mom—is a continuous challenge. “It’s definitely been an adjustment,” Emily admits. “It’s still tiring to work all day and then come home and do nursery pickups, dinner and bath time.” But that’s one struggle all new parents can relate to.
Written by Carly Jansen
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