July 10, 2018

Desiree Garcia, Product Designer

Tell us abit about yourself and what you do?

I’m a first-generation Mexican-American born and raised in Santa Ana, California. I studied psychology at the University of Notre Dame, but I had been tinkering with computers and the web for a few years before then.

I recently joined the Product Design team at Automattic, which is the company behind WordPress, the platform that runs about 30% of the web. Much different from where I was at before, IBM Watson, where I designed AI software. My career has a quirky history, so this kind of departure doesn’t surprise me.

During college, I worked with the University web team, which was doing things like responsive design before they went mainstream. I loved the work there, but I was hellbent on being a doctor (like every other blue collar kid) and never listened to my gut. When I graduated, I went on to work on a Ph.D., and that’s where I burned out for good. A few years in, I quit, and had to figure out what to do (I graduated the year the recession hit, so I had to be creative and hustle a few ways). During that time, I started listening to design podcasts, and they changed my life–in many ways, I was angry at myself for not paying attention to a bunch of things throughout my life that were pointing to the type of work that I do now. But, that’s all in the past–I started over as a junior designer at the federal government of all places, a year or so after leaving my doctoral program, and worked my way back up to where I am now.

Outside of work, I’ve got a family. My one-year-old daughter doesn’t leave a lot of time to do a lot of side projects, which has forced me to be intentional about that kind of stuff. Right now, I’m moonlighting on the editorial team of A List Apart, which has been one of my dream publications to write for since I discovered the web, so I’m good.

How and why did you get involved in tech?

Do you really want to know? This is the truth:

  1. I grew up in a bad neighborhood. I’m talking bad as in, one time, there was a drive-by shooting in front of my house, while I was playing in the yard and my dad was hanging out with a friend. This meant that I ended up indoors a lot, and started messing with an old, second-hand computer. I would break parts of its OS on purpose to figure out how it worked, figured out how to hack into ISPs to get free internet service, and eventually, learned how to make basic websites, then better ones, in exchange for free hosting space, and eventually, money.
  2. The underground electronic music scene. My dad brought me home a CD wallet one day that someone had left behind at his bus stop. It was full of hip-hop mixtapes and recordings of raves in Los Angeles, episodes of Radio 1’s Essential Mix. I was hooked but didn’t know how to get more of it. That year in school, I sat next to a raver in orchestra class, and we negotiated a deal. I would cover for him when he was [not feeling well ] if he brought me back CDs of the shows he went to. One day, he failed to bring me back new music, so he offered something else–a copy of Adobe Photoshop 6. I remember asking him what that was, and still remember his exact response to this day: “It’s like Paint, but better.” The rest is history.
  3. There was a demand for tech work outside of the usual places. And I could supply it, because I had a varied enough education to adapt to places like non-profit organizations. That’s still technical work experience, plus opportunities to grow soft skills or just learn on the job. In these sorts of situations, it’s also honest, straightforward work–you know what your employer needs, and you know when your work is useful. If you’re self-taught or don’t have a specific degree, but you have a foundation from which you can understand that business, you’re valuable.

These reasons sound really pragmatic, and they are. It was after finally working as a designer that I realized how cut out I was for this job and started to connect a LOT of dots backward. Failing at other careers were some of the best things that have happened to me. Nowadays I can wax poetic about design, but I’ve got some grit.

What is your experience being a POC in Tech?

Ok, some real talk here. I didn’t have much trouble until I became more senior in my career. Maybe it was because by then the tech industry had become the full-blown gold rush it is now because when I first started to learn how to code, the dotcom crash was still fresh on people’s minds. People learning how to code or dabble in digital design were often doing it as a hobby or as part of a different job, and I wonder this allowed decent communities to form, and civil discourse to survive, on the web. A few years ago, when the diversity numbers and stories of rampant discrimination in tech companies really started to make mainstream headlines, I noticed people started acting differently towards me at work.

Still, the harder instances of marginalization at work have primarily been for being a woman, particularly when I was pregnant and then when I came back from maternity leave. I know a part of this is because people often have a stereotype of what Mexican people should look like (more real talk coming) and while I don’t look white, I look ethnically vague enough that I’m sure people have left me alone.

So the hardest part actually, is the conversations I overhear in the office about people’s attitudes towards immigrants and their families when people don’t think someone’s listening. People don’t realize I’m Mexican, or that the people that mow their lawns or clean their houses are just like my family members. They can’t grok how people can be born into a family of unskilled immigrant laborers and teach themselves how to code or be a self-taught designer. A couple of times, when I’ve told people these kinds of things, people have reasoned that I’m the “diversity hire.” It’s great for impostor syndrome.

The phrase “diversity hire” alone is an example of how I’ve noticed I have to dodge more things at work today than when the internet wasn’t cool yet.

What advice would you give to a young person who wanted to enter tech?

Think honestly about why you want to do this kind of work while paying attention to things you are drawn to as you go about your day, even if they’re not a subject in school, or resemble a job. When I was younger, none of my school counselors and very few of my teachers took the internet seriously as a career maker–now it’s everything they seem to talk about. Every generation will see certain industries rise and certain industries wane.

The industry has also crashed before–and people had to reinvent themselves. Some couldn’t. Those of us who are entrenched in tech companies have to learn and evolve to stay relevant continuously. People may tell you to pursue specific majors in college because they will guarantee you success, but that’s not the real situation once you graduate–and doing so could bite you in the ass later. Give the liberal arts and sciences a try. Often when you study everything, you can do anything. You’ll never know if you’ll need to rely on a side hustle to pay the bills, but if you have to, it’ll be easier if you enjoy it. You’ll probably be better at it too.

I haven’t even mentioned anything about being a person of color for this question–it’s just that based on my experience and the other minority students I went through college and grad school with, we didn’t make time for career discernment. We were usually making a beeline for whatever it was that people said would get us and our families ahead (for good reason).

Where can we find you?

You can find me on a few Slack communities, such as Latinas in Tech, Techquería. Since there’s so few of us in the industry, connecting remotely has been so good. I’m also on Twitter as @thedezzie, and at dezzie.blog.  
Michael Berhane

Co-founder and CEO of peopleofcolorintech.com & pocitjobs.com. Also the co-host of the #Techish podcast! Full Stack JavaScript developer by trade.

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