How Brenon Kalu went from laid off to a UX Designer in 3 months

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

I’m Brenon, a second-generation Filipino-American born and raised in Vallejo, California, right outside of San Francisco. I currently live in Harlem, New York and recently joined AppNexus as a UX Designer. Before AppNexus, I worked at Havas as an Experience Designer, Bloomberg as a UX Research & Design Intern, and Comrade (now CI&T) as a UX Designer.

User experience design is a pretty nebulous term, but if I had to summarize what I do, it would be this: I understand people’s behaviors, needs, and goals to design easy-to-use products and services that help accomplish their goals. At AppNexus, I design how different users interact with advertising technology software as buyers and sellers of advertising space. The field is extremely multi-disciplinary, so I’m constantly learning new things and being challenged every day.

Outside of work, I enjoy photography, modern art, watching the Golden State Warriors, traveling, listening to music, and consuming internet culture.

How and why did you get involved in tech?

I grew up in the pre-internet revolution, so I know what it’s like to not have the internet at the tap of a finger. However, once my family got dial-up, I was hooked. I was an avid user of Neopets, Xanga, and Myspace, and loved that I could customize my pages and make them my own. Once my dream of finessing my way into the NBA died, I had to find an area of interest that would both appease my parents — who would have loved for me to become a nurse, doctor or lawyer — and satisfy my desire for learning. I decided to study Business Information Systems at San Diego State University, hoping that the intersection of business and technology would somehow help me start my own business someday. I was a great student at SDSU, but I definitely wasn’t a great learner. Admittedly, I knew how to get good grades, but I never found the subject matter engaging enough to spark a strong interest in me. It also didn’t help that I felt everyone around me was WAY smarter than me. Despite this, I graduated with a respectable GPA and landed a job as a Data Analyst post-graduation.

While researching data visualizations for my job, I came across a web experience called Behind The Bloodshed, which visualized all of the mass murders in the United States. This experience re-sparked my interest in front-end development and the power of design and served as the driving force for pursuing design as a career. While working my 9 to 5, I enrolled in community college classes in the evenings to learn the Adobe Suite and the fundamentals of design and took front-end development classes on Codecademy to begin my self-taught education.

Looking back on my life, two major career-related milestones happened that altered the trajectory of my career forever: getting laid off from my job as a Data Analyst and subsequently getting laid off from my next job as a Marketing Operations Specialist. That time in my life was definitely rough and confusing, but I would not be where I am today without overcoming those obstacles. Fortunately, I had the support of my family to pursue design as a career, so after being laid off, I enrolled in a three-month product and UX design program called Tradecraft. While at Tradecraft I worked with early-stage startups and learned all that there was to know about UX, product design, and most importantly, the landscape of the tech industry in the Bay Area. After completing the program, I got my first “real” design job as a UX Designer at Comrade. Around this time, I was motivated, mainly by imposter syndrome and personal validation, to continue learning and growing as a designer in an academic setting. This influenced me to pursue a Masters in Human-Computer Interaction & Design at UC Irvine, which led to an internship at Bloomberg, a full-time gig at Havas, and ultimately AppNexus, where I am today.

This is a very long-winded way of saying my journey to tech was non-linear and relatively untraditional. I would not be where I am today without the support of my family and the people who graciously took a chance on me.

What is your experience being a POC in Tech?

Being a Filipino-American in tech has been really interesting. I have a unique name and I look ethnically ambiguous, so a lot of my initial conversations are oriented around how to pronounce my name correctly and where I’m from. I’ve dealt with these kinds of conversations all my life, so I’m used to them, but I always wonder what it would be like if my name was easier, I looked a certain way, or I identified differently.

In terms of representation, I recognize that because all Asians get grouped into the larger, all-encompassing group of “Asian”, the experiences for sub-groups within that Asian category are often diluted. I do not feel I am accurately represented as a Filipino-American in tech. This has been a big point of contention for me because I want to be accurately represented, but I also don’t want to be considered for a role just to fill a quota. Since I don’t typically see too many people that look like me in my roles, I take it upon myself to be that face and inspiration for others.

However, overall my experience in tech has not been negative. Thankfully, user experience by nature requires us, practitioners, to address our own biases and understand how they affect the work we do. This is a good place to start, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. It has also been very encouraging to see a lot of organizations doing much-needed work that addresses diversity, inclusion, and belonging in tech. I’ve volunteered with organizations like Out in Tech, who pairs students with tech professionals for mentorship and self-directed projects, and Qeyno Labs, who produces hackathons for underrepresented minorities like Native Americans and the Black and Latinx communities.

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

If you are a young person who wants to get into tech, shoot your shot! There are so many avenues to get into tech these days, and there are a number of resources out there to help you acquire the skills you need to be successful in a tech-related role. There are three key things I would recommend to anyone wanting to get into tech:

    1. Find a mentor. If you can find someone who is doing what you are trying to do, they can provide a lot of insight and guidance into their journey and how they got to where they are today. Cold email some folks that you respect in the industry and see if they would be open to giving you any advice about how to break into tech.
    1. Cultivate all your skills. Tech-related roles generally require a lot of “hard” or tech-related skills, so you’ll definitely have to work on those. However, don’t forget about your soft skills too. In terms of design, a designer is a master communicator. They can communicate through multiple mediums: visual, verbal, or written. They should be able to express their ideas and concepts through any of these mediums and their intent should be crystal clear.
  1. Get creative! The tech industry loves hearing about the different pathways people took to get into tech. Explore all the options available to you. Whether that is a networking event, joining a design-related Meetup, or becoming a regular at your local coffee shop, building authentic connections with those around you and in places that you want to be are sure ways to make the move into tech. For example, I found my current job because a person I follow on Instagram posted about a diversity & inclusion event at AppNexus, which led to me attending the event, talking to a recruiter, landing an interview, and eventually getting hired! Anything is possible if you put yourself out there.

Where can we find you?

Twitter: https://twitter.com/brenonkalu

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/brenonkalu/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/bkalu/


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Michael Berhane, Founder of POCIT
Michael Berhane
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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