As a senior in college in 1994, I started my first job in my existing career pathway.  I got an internship with a relatively new company, Man-Made Systems (later known as UserWorks), as a human factors engineer, doing today what would be termed user research and evaluation of websites and software applications.  As soon as I graduated later that year, I got a full-time job with the company as employee number three.  And along with that full-time job, I got a mentor.  The owner of the company, Dick Horst, provided me with knowledge and experience that framed basically the next twenty years of my career.  As my career progressed, I continued to gain knowledge and experiences from others and as I think back to those early years, I perhaps got more than I gave.

More recently, though, I have have the opportunity to give back a bit as well with a number of opportunities to help others in their UX careers through some of the UX volunteer efforts in which I’ve been involved.  I’ve also been able to teach others about UX methods and careers through formal and ad-hoc mentoring efforts, as well as in classroom settings.

Is a mentor necessary for senior-level practitioners?

Now that I’ve been in the field for twenty years, I should know what I need to know.  What I don’t know- perhaps a new research method, or the use of a particular new software product, or just what is going on in the field as a whole can be gleaned from some reading and likely some experimentation on my own.

But about a month ago, I was puzzling over some seemingly simple financial modeling for my business and was frustrated by my lack of ability to accurately project revenue and expenses.  I was discussing this with a UX-er who had been running his own business for much longer than I, and after listening to my issue, he quickly provided a relatively simple overlay of data to solve the problem.  That’s when I realized, even 20 years into my career, I missed having a mentor.

Missing a mentor

For sure, I have a strong network of UX colleagues, and I certainly do trade advice related to running a UX consulting firm, particular UX methods, and even related to some of the volunteer UX efforts that I’m involved in.  And that is a wonderful thing to know that there are people to turn to.  I also have written about my UX news feed, which I use to stay on top of the latest UX posts from those in the field.

I love my career and I very much enjoy the pathway that life has taken.  I love helping others in the field through UX volunteer efforts.  And I love landing ever so much out of my comfort zone.  But just like the kid who wants to grow up and then when he grows up he realizes how he didn’t appreciate how easy childhood was, I do sometimes wish for a mentor like I had in days past.

For those new to the field

If you are new in the field of UX, and are amenable, consider how you might find a mentor.

  • Assess your current workplace: Consider whether there is someone at your current job who you could ask to help guide you as you begin your career.
  • Contact your local professional organizations and meetups. Often the people who are involved in these initiatives are already committed to volunteer some of their time to help others, and even if they aren’t the right people, they may know people.
  • Consider national or international organizations that may be able to match you with someone in your local community or perhaps someone who can mentor you remotely.

For senior-level practitioners

If you’re more senior in your field, continue to stay on top of what is new and hot within your particular area of UX, and do consider trying to push out of your comfort zone ever so much.  Also, you may want to:

  • Work on building out a network of other senior-level UX-ers.
  • Volunteer to help others through efforts with UX organizations. Interestingly, by setting aside time to help others, you’ll get to spend time with those who can help, even many years into the field.
  • Be humble. Don’t hide the fact that you don’t know everything. Don’t hide that you still struggle with problems and that you don’t have all the answers.
  • Trust in your colleagues. UX is not a cut-throat industry.   I’ve always been so impressed with how much those in UX want to help each other.

Creating a Mentor-Aggregate

I know that at this point in my career, while I’m not likely to have a mentor like in days past, perhaps what I and what other senior-level UX professionals can achieve, and should appreciate, is a mentor-aggregate.  Through a solid network of other professionals, we can continue to help each other and provide knowledge and career advancement, and when we encounter work-things that frighten us (I still do!) we have others to turn to, to learn from their knowledge and experience.

Image: Michael Darcy Brown /