Jessica Richards, senior product research manager at Workhuman, discusses her career and why women need workplace sponsors.
Jessica Richards’ job is to focus on the people using the products designed by her colleagues at employee software company Workhuman.
She leads a user research team within Workhuman’s wider product design department. This involves talking to people, learning about their needs and using the insights to improve products.
Here, Richards tells SiliconRepublic.com about the challenges she has overcome to get to where she is today, as well as the many women who helped and inspired her along the way.
‘Workhuman has a very supportive and generous culture where people are quick to recognise good work and celebrate each other’s achievements’
– JESSICA RICHARDS
What drew you to this career area?
When I saw my first usability test, I was fascinated by the way humans interact with technology and often assume they are at fault if it doesn’t work! I saw an opportunity to help people of all backgrounds access thoughtfully designed products and services that meet their needs. Getting into UX research and design was the perfect fit for my analytical skills, curiosity, empathy and interest in people and technology.
What’s the best thing about working in it?
The best thing is finding a new piece of information about how someone uses a product that unlocks a different way of thinking about the design.
Workhuman’s software brings out the human side of work by giving people the opportunity to recognise and thank their colleagues, keep track of progress and ask for feedback. As a research team, this means we have wide-ranging and interesting discussions about workplace culture, how people feel at work and what helps them stay connected.
What’s the most exciting development you’ve witnessed in your sector since you started working in it?
Many more companies now recognise the value of UX, user research and product design. It’s been amazing to see these teams grow from one or two specialists to larger, global teams with a more strategic remit.
What aspect of your job did you struggle with or have you struggled to get to grips with?
The journey through management and finding career growth wasn’t always easy. At times, I had plenty more to offer but progression opportunities were not available. When I look back, I believe some of this was about being a woman in male-dominated leadership teams.
What has been the hardest thing you’ve had to face in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Given there is no ‘job for life’ any more, we have to learn to pivot our careers frequently. I found it tough facing redundancy, setting up as a freelancer, adapting to the uncertainty of the job market and also the pandemic was very difficult! But these are all experiences that made me stronger, more versatile and creative.
Workhuman has a very supportive and generous culture where people are quick to recognise good work and celebrate each other’s achievements. We also have open discussions and training about mental health, which helps with feeling able to speak up about any challenges we face.
If you had the power to change anything within the STEM sector, what would that be?
Intersectional gender equality at all levels and in all fields.
Which of your personality traits makes you best suited to your job and this sector?
I’m genuinely interested in why people make decisions and how they think.
Is there something in your personal life that helps you or has helped you in your job?
The more I’ve been through in my personal life, the more circumstances and situations I’m able to relate to, which makes me a better manager and researcher. I’m a feminist and I feel very strongly that diverse teams perform better. One of the ways I bring this value to work is in co-leading Workhuman’s Women & Allies employee resource group (ERG) with an amazing committee.
How do you make connections with others in the STEM community?
I enjoy attending events and conferences. I also love podcasts, reading and writing articles. I volunteer with a group called Quiet Strength, for creative introverts, and I am a mentor for Founder Institute, a start-up accelerator. Through our Women & Allies ERG, we are also working with Black Women in Tech.
Has mentorship or coaching been important in your career?
Yes, I definitely benefited from managers who mentored and coached me. It’s also important for women to have sponsors who advocate for them. Sponsorship is more proactive, elevating the career of someone else using the power you have as a result of seniority or network influence. I’m not sure these always need to be formal roles or responsibilities – we can always be on the lookout for people to elevate and amplify.
At Workhuman, my manager and VP of product design, Ger Fitzgerald, and the other managers in product design are always providing encouragement and support. Michelle McDaid, senior director of engineering, gives me lots of ideas and motivation, along with the other members of Women & Allies: Andrew Keogh, Caroline Kaine, Kellye Leonard, Alma Tarfa, Martina Campbell, Michelle Reburn, Simone Crowley – so many people!
What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career in your area?
Start going to events, joining local networks, reading articles and asking questions. I also recommend bootcamps for people who might want to upskill when changing careers. I used to teach at a bootcamp and I know some fantastic teachers and graduates of the course who are now working in the industry.
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