For Julia Feld, nothing brings a community together quite like a hot plate of fresh homemade pasta drizzled with a sage butter sauce, or perhaps a bolognese.
Years ago, when Feld still called her native Boston home, she started hosting monthly dinner parties to bring like-minded people together, connect with others, and eat good, homemade food that she cooks herself. The dinners started small, but by the time she packed her bags and headed to Berlin, where she now lives, Feld’s dinner parties had grown to some 50 people. She didn’t hesitate to start the dinner parties up again. It was a great way for her to get to know others in Berlin’s burgeoning startup scene.
Food is akin to the immigrant experience
“To a certain degree, getting to know people and connecting people that might otherwise not be friends, or might not engage with each other, it’s something that goes back to this idea of the immigrant experience,” Feld said. “It makes you feel like you have family when your root family isn’t there. Sharing a meal with someone gets at that idea of the family meal.”
In Berlin, Feld is a product designer at HotJar, a company that develops tools to analyze user behavior via heatmaps, recording sessions, and other usability tests. It’s a new opportunity for her, and one that differs from her previous roles in UX as this remote opportunity requires her to work from home.
“Before joining Hotjar, I never would have imagined that I’d be interested in being a fully remote employee,” Feld said. “Although I’m fairly introverted, I’m quite social and love the collaborative aspect of design work. I realized that this was a great opportunity to learn how to facilitate a rich collaborative experience with the tools available in a remote environment. I was too curious to pass up this opportunity to learn.”
How working with refugees introduced Julia to UX and inspired a career change
Feld’s curiosity is the flame that led her to user experience design. A sociology major by trade, her journey to UX happened almost accidentally. Early in her career, she was working with a non-profit in Boston that supported undocumented immigrants in navigating the legal system in the U.S. Those seeking the organization’s services were required to fill out their own paperwork. One day, after explaining the process to one mother, she slid the papers across the table for the mother to fill out on behalf of her young daughter.
“Once we put the sheet in front of her to fill out, we found out that she didn’t know how to write,” Feld said. “We had to find a way for her to fill out this form for her daughter, yet she was struggling to simply hold the pen correctly. Through some creative problem solving and observation, we found a way for her to fill out her own form and send it in.”
Working with refugees in this manner opened Feld’s eyes to a lot of systemic issues that could be improved through better design processes. “I started to think, okay, so how can you start to solve problems more holistically rather than being at the end and just fixing the result of the problem? How can we start to think about this problem from the start to its end and start designing solutions?”
Throughout her high school and college education, Feld had taken numerous design courses. In her free time, she found herself drawing mockups and wireframes redesigning websites and apps that she didn’t like. After telling a friend about her greater observations working with refugees in the immigration system, her friend said, “you know, this idea of problem-solving and really fixing problems systematically, combined with these mock-ups, it’s an actual job.”
Feld applied to Techstars in Boston and participated in a program that helped people transition into careers in the startup world. Through this experience, she met Lara Cavezza, co-organizer of Ladies That UX Boston. She was then able to get her first product design job.
Breaking bread in Berlin
The startup bug had bitten Julia. She had wanted to work overseas ever since she spent a semester studying abroad in high school in Salles, a tiny town in southwest France. She knew Berlin had a strong startup scene, and ended up moving there almost exactly one year to the day after vacationing there and falling in love with the historic city.
“It seemed like a city that has so many layers of stories in it that I was just curious to understand more. What are these stories in this city and how do they relate to the present time?” she asked herself.
Berlin is not Boston. With a younger tech industry that attracts people from all over, it’s a completely different cultural experience than what she was used to in the States, and one that comes with all sorts of challenges. Yet the experience hit her close to home. She began volunteering with an organization called ReDi, which helps newcomers to Berlin get the skills they need to succeed in the city’s digital economy. Initially, she taught a UX/UI class for women that helps them bridge skills they learned in their own counties with Berlin’s in-demand tactical skills, and now consults more on the building of the curriculum itself.
“As the daughter of immigrants, being an immigrant myself, and growing up and living in a community with a lot of national diversity, the topic of migration is fairly present in my every day,” Feld remarked.
She is working on a side project called Reading the City, which recommends books to read “that are deeply connected to a specific place.” It’s a way for her to add texture into what she says is a greater conversation about place and belonging, a topic that has affected her throughout her life. Right now in an ode to home, she is featuring Interpreter of Maladies, a book by Jhumpa Lahiri, as a way to explore Boston.
“It’s less of a distinction between who is a refugee, who is an immigrant, and who has been there for generations, and more about what are all of our shared experiences in this place?” Feld said. “Although this project doesn’t touch on policy topics, I’m hopeful that it’s a great platform to see different perspectives.”
Advice for new UX designers: It’s not a competition
Recently, a cohort of women graduated from the UX/UI design class Feld helps teach, and unsurprisingly many of them were eager to get out there and start making their mark in the world of UX. This is where she makes a point to remind them to take it one step at a time.
“I find people can get really caught up in, okay, I need to know how to do all these things: how do I start looking for a job? How do I do this; how do I do that? The work that I’ve been doing with them is [to take it] one thing at a time. You can’t apply without a portfolio, so let’s work on your portfolio. Then we’ll break it down together. What does a case study look like? What do you need in there? How do you communicate all of the work that you’ve been doing on this project?”
From there, the next biggest takeaway is that this is not a competition.
“Listen, you’re not competing against each other for these junior roles. It might seem like there are barely any junior roles out there and that you are competing, but you’re not because you all have really different skill sets. The right job for one of you is going to be the wrong job for another one of you, so help each other get these jobs,” she tells her students.
Many people transition into UX from different careers just like Feld did, which is why when she was looking for her first job she knew she wanted to work with an established design team that could help mentor her and show her the ropes. She worked closely with Allan Telio, who was at the time vice president and Boston program director at the Startup Institute, and she credits him with instilling many of these values in her.
“Share the interview questions, share how the interview went and how you’re meeting with people. It’s really important to establish this comradery in the UX community, so we’re all helping each other out,” she said. “We’re doing this to help solve problems, so we should help each other in doing that as well.”
Whether she’s sharing knowledge through her volunteer work, or noodles around a communal table, Julia is doing her part to help create more inclusive communities in tech and UX.