Whether you’re struggling to find the right job path, or making a career shift, you’ll find inspiration in our new column, Career Pivots, where some of today’s top design leaders share the often unexpected, life-changing moments that altered their career course and defined their success. Kicking it off this week is Alison Rand, InVision’s senior director of design operations.
What did you want to be when you “grew up?”
I graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a degree in art history and fine art. I was in school thinking that I was going to be an art historian, fresco painting restorer, or something like that. That’s how I imagined my life. But things quickly changed when I had to put food in my own mouth.
What was your first “real” job?
When I graduated, I was 21 years old, needed to make money and I had no idea what I was going to do with my art degree. So I got a job as an executive assistant in the intranet department of IBM, supporting one of the leaders there.
What did you learn at IBM?
I became very interested in the intranet work they were doing, which was the basic beginning of the Internet age and this was all new to me. They were creating one centralized hub where all of the employees, specifically in tech, could communicate with one another and connect the work that was happening across the company.
I became friends with the tech team in that department at IBM and they recommended that if I was interested in their work, I should learn basic coding skills.
There was an intro to HTML class nearby at Durham Tech. It was only $35—and turned out to be the best $35 I ever spent in my life.
How did the $35 coding degree impact your career?
I was always very arts-driven, but I was also always good at math and science, so I loved learning how to code. I supported IBM in the intranet department for a bit, but was anxious to leave North Carolina and get back home to New York. So I applied for webmaster and coding jobs in NYC.
What was your first coding job?
I got my first job working as a webmaster for United Entertainment Media, a conglomerate of magazines for musicians. My job was basically to move all of the print publications online. I was developing the CMS platforms that we were going to publish the content onto and I had to design the templates as well. There was nobody else doing any of that work, so I had to learn how to do it all.
What did you learn from making the decision to take that coding course?
I learned that you can go on one path and it doesn’t mean that’s going to be your final path. Being open to new things really allows you to see opportunities where you might never have seen them before. I spent a long time feeling like I’ve kind of slipped and fell into all of this and it wasn’t intentional, but as I look back now at all of those moments in my life over the past 20 years, I realize that there has been intentionality around it, like different pieces of a larger puzzle, even if it didn’t feel that way.
What was the next big break in your career?
I stayed at United Entertainment Media for a while before moving to MTV.com as a developer. There was a much bigger cross-functional team of disciplines there like visual design, development, and information architecture. This is when I started to get much more interested in the end-to-end process.
At MTV.com I repositioned myself, with the support of the people there, and transitioned out of coding into overseeing the end-to-end work as a project manager, called producers at that time. If there was something that needed to launch, I was responsible for managing the process and seeing it through from beginning to end. That is how I made the transition into program/project management, by seeing an opportunity, identifying my desire and ability to lead in that way, and going for it.
How does your fine arts background and love for arts help you do your job as a design operations leader?
Designers are traditionally a group of misfits; they bring so many different talents to the table, and while not all of them are fine artists, all of them are creative thinkers. I’ve always thought of myself as a design thinker; a close former colleague of mine liked to remind me that process design is also design.
Although I don’t create as much as I used to as an artist or practitioner, I still enjoy the process of understanding how creativity contributes to business outcomes. I admire people who have the ability to use both sides of their brain, which I think I do as well, like many people in design. Being a critical/creative thinker is so important when it comes to problem-solving. What I love about my current role is shepherding the design process, and thinking about new and interesting ways to approach design operations at scale.
Alison’s home office in Brooklyn (complete with kid drawing on the whiteboard)
What advice would you give people trying to figure out which career path to take?
It’s important not to overthink. Most people who are just starting out get super stressed about what they’re going to do with their life, that’s natural, but it’s important to try not to overthink it. Allow yourself to explore and engage in all of your interests but at the same time, make choices with intentionality.
It helps to identify the things you feel passionately about, especially if you’re struggling to find your way or feel a bit lost. Applying that passion to the career choices you’re making will be a bit of a Northern light on your journey, however meandering.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.