Karly Nelson

How many years have you been in tech?

I’ve only had a job in tech for about 3 years, but I’ve dabbled in it longer than that.

Tell me about your background. What were your early years like?

I started as a UX Design intern, and the only woman on a design team of about 15. We now are up to about 25 and have 3 women on the team. You’d think that would have been intimidating for me, but I was basically only friends with guys growing up, and they were all so kind and welcoming, so right away I felt like I fit in and they treated me like a little sister (I was the youngest by far). In general I haven’t really had any issues with sexism in tech, or if I have I only interpreted it as a prejudice against designers in a very developer-focused environment. I’ve always felt like my fellow male designers were my allies in those sorts of situations, which have been few. Overall I’ve met so many wonderful men in this industry, which sadly was a surprise to me after all the horror stories I’ve heard. And I know there are plenty of problems for women in tech, but I also think it’s important to remember that they’re are still a lot of awesome people, and good men who are also horrified when women or anyone is hurt by others in the industry. The only two times I needed to confront two different men in the company about something they said or did that made me uncomfortable, they were immediately repentant and never did or said that thing again, and I feel like we became better friends because of that. Also people carry things for me all the time, which is half the fun of being a woman. I’m very strong, so I’m over having to carry things for myself. I had to carry heavy things growing up all the time because I was always helping my dad with yard works and things. If someone offers I ain’t gonna say no.

How were you exposed to tech?

I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area, and my dad was and is a computer programmer – he got a degree in Computer Science back when that was still a pretty weird thing to do, and then went on to get a PhD in it as well. So he knows computers very well, and has been in the business for a very long time. Growing up I would watch him type in the Terminal and be mesmerized. He had these screen savers that were janky 90s 3D structures that would be built on screen based on some algorithm, but my sister and I would sit on his computer and pretend to type on his computer and make believe that we were coding what was happening on screen. The fact that I now know a fair amount of Terminal commands is endlessly gratifying for me, and is fulfilling a childhood dream in a way, though for a long time I never thought I would follow in his footsteps at all. My mother also knew computers very well, but from the other side – she was the computer teacher at our elementary school for a while, so my sister and I would spend hours after school in the computer lab with her. She taught me nearly everything I know about using computers, search engines, word processors, and all the basic programs. She was a stickler about internet safety, which I thought was overkill at the time, but now I very much appreciate. So while most of my friends would complain that their parents didn’t understand technology, mine were and still are the ones I go to whenever I had questions or wanted to learn something. They also tend to be earlier on catching trends than me. My dad had the first generation iPod and my mother the first generation iPhone. My mom actually was on Facebook years before I was, and I didn’t get a smart phone until 2012. Being immersed in tech was something I took for granted growing up, and appreciate looking back.

Though I was immersed in technology, I didn’t think about getting a job in the field until the recently. I’ve always loved building things, and would play a lot with tinker toys and those kits with all the metal pieces that you could build things like catapults out of. Once, when I was about 10 or so, I was messing around with one of those and found a better way to build what I wanted than the directions, and thought maybe I should do something like that for a living, like engineering or something. I looked up types of engineering and saw that mechanical engineering seemed the most enjoyable to me, so I decided then that I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. This idea persisted until high school, when I took an art class. Now, I had been taking art lessons every week since I was 9 with a woman in my neighborhood, and my sister and I would also go to her house in the summers to do oil painting classes. So I knew I loved art, but I didn’t want to make a career out of it, because having to come up with ideas of what to draw all the time sounded terrible, and I’m not someone who does art to express my emotions. I just like making things. Anyway, because I took all these art lessons, I went straight to Art 3 my freshman year of high school, and it quickly became my favorite class. So I had a bit of an existential crisis, because I wanted someway I could do art for a career without doing “Art” for a career. I talked to my art teacher about it and he said “What about graphic design?” and I had never heard of graphic design, so I went onto his little old windows desktop computer and googled it, read like one Wikipedia article on it and decided that’s what I wanted to do. It sounded like the perfect blend of what I loved – art, problem solving, and making things for a practical purpose. (Side note: I think we absolutely need art for art’s sake, not just for “practical” purposes, and I do make such art sometimes, but I just didn’t want to do that for a career).

It was such a mundane and analytical way to launch a creative career, and it still makes me laugh thinking about it. But I was a weird little analytical and creative kid and it was very serendipitous that I fell into design because I feel like I was made for it. My dream car since the time I was a little girl was a Toyota Rav4 because it seemed very versatile and practical, and my mom’s friend had one, which is such a boring car to have as a “dream” car. So I’m not one to have very grandiose dreams, but I generally just enjoy the life God has given me, so I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Though for a while I feared it would make me a bad artist and designer.

Though I had decided to be a graphic designer, I knew I didn’t want to go to art school, I wanted to go to “real” school, as my Dad put it. Both my parents have always been incredibly supportive of basically anything I wanted to do, and I know they would’ve been supportive if I went to art school, but my dad knew we were both very similar, and I would prefer a more academic atmosphere to a purely artistic one. And he was right. I went to a summer class at an art school, and it was fine, but it confirmed for me that that wasn’t the place for me. I also wanted to do Anthropology as a second major just for kicks, because I like learning and it was a field I loved but didn’t want a career in. As it turns out, there aren’t a lot of colleges that are rigorous academically, and have a solid graphic design program, and also anthropology, and some other small preferences I had, so my choices were narrowed for me in a very beneficial way, and the third college I visited I fell in love with and applied early decision to. That was a college in St. Louis, and it was completely fate that I was able to go there. The art school there was filled the perfect blend of nerds and artists, and taught me not just how to make art but how to think and talk about it. I absolutely loved it. I also finally found my people in the college at large – I could make an obscure Lord of the Rings joke and everyone in the room would both understand the reference and think it was funny. I also had a spiritual reawakening there in a way I did not anticipate. And while college was great for me in many ways, that is by far the most important thing that happened to me there.

God is so good to me – basically my whole life I just went with my gut and just did the things I liked, and he led me exactly where I needed to be, with very little thought or tears or angst on my part. Even my love of anthropology was weaved in eventually. The first two years of the art school are just the basics – drawing, painting, sculpture, etc. and I loved it. The last two years were your major, so it wasn’t until the fall of 2012 that I truly began my graphic design career. I loved it right away, but also immediately knew I had no idea what I was doing – I had never even heard of typography, and a lot of my classmates were way ahead of me. But I still loved it, and learned a lot, and it was great. But we had to decide between 2 tracks our last year – illustration and design. My professors thought I was more of an illustrator, but I really wanted to do design, because a vague idea about web design had begun forming in my head. I hadn’t heard of UX/UI design until the end of my junior year, and the more I heard about it the more interested I was in it. The program there was still very print-focused though, so we didn’t have any interaction design classes until my last year, which was very fortunate for me. The fall of my senior year I took an interaction design class and knew right away it was what I wanted to do. I had never thought that even anthropology was a part of design, but it really is – you can’t design solutions for people if you don’t have empathy for them or understand them. With that last piece of the puzzle in place in my head, I took the first web design class they had ever offered my last semester, and made a website for my capstone project (ours was the first year you had an option to do a website instead of a book – very serendipitous for me).

I knew two things: 1) I wanted to stay in St. Louis, for I had fallen in love with this weird little city, and 2) I wanted a paid UX Design internship right off the bat. Again, limited options proved fortuitous for me. I applied to only 2 internships, got the one at Asynchrony, and have been here ever since and am so incredibly grateful that I got this job. I absolutely love it, and the people here. My 5-year goal was to be the only front-end on a project and that was able to happen a year and a half in, so I’ve been learning a ton. I absolutely love front-end development, and maybe I’ll even get to some more backend stuff someday who knows. But it’s been a very weird, fun, and circuitous journey for me to get from pretending to type in Terminal in my dad’s office to getting to type in it for real in my own.

What is your current role?

I’m a User Experience Designer at Asynchrony. I don’t only do more traditional design (wireframes, mockups, etc.) but also have grown a lot in front-end development, and absolutely love it and want to stretch in that direction more and more. We also do usability tests.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

When I was able to be the only UX Designer on the team and solely responsible for the the html and css of a web app we were building. It was daunting at first but a very important big step for me, and it taught me so much more than I could have learned on my own.

What are you learning right now?

WordPress! And generally growing in my knowledge of front-end development. I still have only a jquery-type knowledge of javascript and would like to learn actual javascript.

What advice do you wish someone had given to you? What advice would you give to others starting out?

I was surprised how often developers google things. For some reason I had assumed that was cheating. But it’s not! I would say don’t be intimidated by coding. It’s not witchcraft, and there are a lot of resources and people out there that want to teach others. Open source is the best. Also, it will be very overwhelming at first, but if you just keep working at it, and working through the confusion and not quite grasping everything, you will eventually reach a turning point and things will just click in your mind and it’s the best feeling in the world! Just because you’re not naturally good at something doesn’t mean you’ll never be good at something. Take art, for instance. You all act like it’s sorcery, like you have to be born a wizard, an artist, like it’s innate mastery. No! Sure, some people are born with greater talent than others, but art is a learnable skill. I can only draw a person better and faster than you because I have practiced doing so for thousands of hours and for many years. And I haven’t nearly practiced enough. If you start drawing every day, and practicing constantly, in a few years you will far surpass me, even if you can barely draw a straight line today. There’s this idea that you have to be a genius to be able to do something. That’s dumb. Michelangelo started sculpting when he was 10. He didn’t just magically make the David out of nowhere. He practiced for years and years and years. Now, if I started sculpting at the same age as Michelangelo, and practiced the exact same amount, he would probably still be better than me, because he definitely had talent. But you know what, I would be infinitely better than all o’ ya’ll! I would destroy at sculpting. It would be stupid of me to stop sculpting because one guy is better than me. So, be okay with the process, and don’t compare yourselves to someone who’s been coding for 30 years and despair that you’re not as good as them. If you give up now, you’ll for sure never be as good as them, but if you keep working at it, who knows, you may even surpass them one day.

What are your hobbies?

I work in the Jr. High ministry at my church, I read a lot (fantasy and theological books mostly), I also fence, ride my bike, hike, camp, backpack, and go hammocking. I love to cook, and to eat.

What do you like about St. Louis? The midwest? Why do you live here?

Things move slower here then on the coast (I’m from California). People always look at me sideways when I say I work at a tech company in St. Louis when I’m from the San Francisco area, but the midwest is more my speed. I love the work-life balance, and that people care more about spending time with their families than making a ton of money. I was also seduced by all the free things to do in St. Louis, and I can’t get over how affordable it is to live here. Also so much good food!!!

Who inspires you?

Neem Serra! She keeps fighting the good fight.

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