Jessica Gaddis never saw herself as a designer, but how she ended up working as one at Netflix is a movie-worthy tale.
Growing up in the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, raised by two parents who worked in technology, Gaddis was no stranger to what a career in STEM might look like. Her mother was a programmer and her father built computers from scratch. Huge books about java and other languages the size of encyclopedias filled her home. Her mother enrolled Gaddis and her brother in DAPCEP, a program that introduces Detroit youth to opportunities in STEM, and her father taught her how to code — introducing her to HTML and CSS at a young age.
Her passions, she thought, were elsewhere. After high school, she moved to Illinois to study broadcast journalism at Northwestern University. In one of her classes, journalism students were paired with computer science students to develop interactive storytelling projects.
“That was kind of my first foray into technology, but it never crossed my mind like, ‘oh I’m going to be a designer’, or ‘I want to be a designer.’ I didn’t even know that there was all of this design opportunity out there. I thought it was literally just graphic design and drawing,” she said. Gaddis decided she didn’t want to be a journalist anymore and switched to public relations. After graduation, she moved to California to work in technology PR, but it wasn’t what she thought it would be either.
“You’re given this product and you have to spin it to get media coverage and I think I wanted something that was closer to touching the product, influencing the product and changing the product — not necessarily just taking what the product already was and then pitching it to a bunch of people,” she said.
The design project that changed everything
She did what all entrepreneurial-minded people do when something isn’t working — she pivoted, taking on a role as a business operations coordinator at another agency. She was given the opportunity to manage a project where she was in charge of figuring out how to increase usage of the company’s internal social messaging app.
“I started doing research about app design, good app design, how do I make people use my app, etc. I came across UX. I didn’t know what those letters stood for, so I started researching more. I learned about user experience and user experience design. As I was trying to finish this project I was applying what I was researching. When it was over, I realized I liked doing that a lot more than what I was actually hired to do,” she said. “I liked how challenging — but also how exciting — it was. It wasn’t just how something looked, but it also just wasn’t how something worked. It was using those two things together to come up with a solution.”
She kept researching and learning more, and eight months later she was applying for the product design position at Netflix. After a lengthy interview process, the position was hers.
Looking at UX through a journalistic lens
Gaddis didn’t have the luxury of being able to afford an expensive bootcamp program to study UX, and instead had to “design her own curriculum” and put together her own portfolio. She signed up for a bunch of newsletters including UX Notebook by Sarah Doody, who we’ve previously featured in the Women in UX series. That’s where she discovered the concept of storytelling through design.
“That made sense to me coming from a journalism background. Also, interviewing people when you’re doing user research: that came really easily to me because I had done it before in school. I was able to connect the two,” she said. “It made a lot of sense to look at it through a storytelling lens — like, what story is this product trying to tell? What are the hardships? What’s happening? What’s the climax? What’s the resolution? All these different things that you can pull from, it just makes sense. I liked it so I just kept doing it.”
User research was no problem, but she was no designer, at least not at first.
“When I got to Netflix, the first thing I designed looked so ugly it was terrible. It was really, really bad. I was so embarrassed by it,” she said.
“Once I realized that user research, UI design, and other different components of design were all their own hard skills, I tried to do all of them in a very short period of time, thinking I knew more than I actually knew. I had to learn it’s not something that comes easily— at least for me, it didn’t come naturally because there is so much to know in design.”
She kept working, though, and in February she’ll celebrate two years at Netflix.
Advocating for UX education and awareness for black women
In teaching herself about UX, Gaddis realized that some of the biggest barriers to entry — for black women especially — are a lack of affordable education opportunities and a lack of awareness that these jobs exist.
Even though she had more exposure to STEM careers growing up, she said she didn’t know the extent of the opportunities available until she was living it. Now she wants other black women and girls to know about these opportunities, as well.
“I’m passionate about giving young women all of the opportunities, all of the knowledge, and all of the information to make more informed decisions about their roles. Even if no one goes into design that’s a black woman ever again, I want women to be able to make those decisions for themselves and know that there is stuff out there for them that maybe they wouldn’t account for, or they wouldn’t even strive to,” Gaddis said.
Although she doesn’t regret pursuing journalism, she can’t help but wonder about what her path would have looked like had she known this path existed.
“I think everyone should learn design even if you don’t become a designer. It’s such a beneficial skill to have. For me it’s about really allowing people to make that decision for themselves, regardless of their means and regardless of where they are economically. If someone is interested in UX, or someone is interested in design, they should be able to have access to education without having to come out of their pocket $15,000 for a three month course.”
Gaddis did put some money into her education. She budgeted $1,000 over a period of about eight months to spend on books and online courses. She recommends this path, but wants others to know there are lots of resources available online to help get you started.
Jessica’s top two tips for finding success as a new UX designer
In a world where people are often advised to “network up” by finding a mentor, Gaddis says the key to her success was “looking left to right” — counsel she received early on.
“The biggest things I’ve done that really helped me are one, finding a community [and two], finding a peer,” she said.
Months before Gaddis considered herself a designer, she connected with a group in San Francisco called Bay Area Black Designers.
“For me, finding a community like that that also looked like me was super important because you kind of have a family on day one. You walk in and everyone is welcoming and accepting no matter what skill level you’re at,” she said.
She also found a trusted peer in a colleague who was hired at Netflix at the same time as her. Netflix, Gaddis said, has a largely senior staff of experience designers. Having someone at her level — whom she could work with to figure things out — became imperative to her success.
“We make each other better when it comes to work and I can talk to her about what I’m going through as a young designer, our environment, and how we can work together to better ourselves,” Gaddis said. “There is a lot of stuff that we don’t know how to do, so we figured out hey, every Friday we can have a design learning session, pick one topic, watch some videos, do some exercises and try to get better together.”
Netflix recommendations? Yes please!
If you’re wondering, yes, Gaddis does have some recommendations as to what Netflix shows to binge watch right now.
“I just finished Punisher. It was amazing; super violent, but it was so good,” she said. “Another one that I loved was Atypical. It’s about this boy — he has autism — and his family. You would think it would be something you’ve already seen before, but it’s amazing. It’s so different. I love it. It’s my favorite Netflix show of the year.”