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Academy Xi Blog

Community Spotlight: Gowri Penkar

By Academy Xi

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Senior Service Designer and Mentor, Gowri discusses the power of mentoring and shares how determination and community have shaped her 20 year career.

Hi Gowri, tell us a little about yourself and your professional background.

I’m a Senior Service Designer at Telstra, designing the end-to-end customer experience for 5G Home Internet, a strategic product. When I began my career some 20-odd years ago, I started as a web and UI designer. 

My early roles were limited to the aesthetics of a website or an application. But I always felt that something was missing and wanted to learn more. This self-awareness was a turning point for me and thus began a journey of lifelong learning. I taught myself by reading copious amounts off the internet because human-computer interaction courses (which was what they were called at the time) were either inaccessible or little known. 

I began to understand the need for a change in mindset, the critical need for quality customer research and empathy in my practice. In the meantime, I landed a UI role in a multinational company and used my position there to request a transition to the research team. 

My next move was to a design consultancy in Singapore, where I worked as a design researcher with multiple industries including banks, telecom, advertising and marketing agencies. Since then, I have held various roles across UX Design, Design Research, Product Design and Service Design – working with stakeholders across different areas in the business to come up with a shared vision. 

“As I look back to all those years ago, I can’t help but feel proud of where I am today, both as a designer and a person. It was sheer hard work, resilience and determination, but also the wonderful designers that I met along the way who shaped my practice.” 

Navigating a Design Career

What do you think are the biggest challenges in navigating a career in Service Design in your case? 

I think the challenges with Service Design are organisational and cultural factors. Service design as a practice is supposed to influence the organisation’s different functions, including its systems, processes, marketing, digital touchpoints, etc. However, most times it winds up having agency over just the customer-facing functions. This makes it difficult to influence the complete service journey and make meaningful changes.

There also are times where individual product owners and managers provide an environment that encourages human-centred design, but it ultimately comes down to the business vision. Sometimes organisations don’t have the budget to support true human-centred design and it winds up as a checkbox rather than a practice that ensures rigour.

In-Residence Program experience

You generously volunteer your time to mentor students at Academy Xi.
Why do you think mentoring is important?

To me, mentoring is important because it is a two-way street with many benefits for the mentor as well as the mentee. Being a mentor helps me articulate concepts that I’ve been reflecting on, or perhaps methodologies that have become second nature to me. Taking someone through my thought process and talking through the nuances of a design approach essentially solidifies my learning too. 

For the mentee, it provides the benefit of learning from someone else’s experience and their insights. It’s also a great time to be a mentee considering they have access to the industry’s best and brightest through Academy Xi, not to mention the relationships they get to build. 

What made you want to become a mentor with Academy Xi? 

When I started my career as a designer, I did it all alone and learnt the hard way. I love giving back to the community by supporting the next generation of people, especially considering the complex challenges that await them (if you’ve watched “Social Dilemma” on Netflix, you know what I mean). 

“I love to guide others along this journey of changing their mindset, because design education aside, it is a powerful way of thinking and being.” 

How have you found the process and experience of mentoring? 

I am in the process of mentoring my second Academy Xi mentee right now. What struck me about this program is how much mentees value the In-Residence program and how prepared they are for each session. It is indeed admirable. 

Another interesting takeaway is how different each person is – their backgrounds, their goals and what they hope to achieve out of the sessions. 

It makes me think of how to structure my approach to different individuals so they get the most out of the sessions. I have a structured approach to my mentoring sessions, where I ask my mentees to:

  • List their short term and long term goals
  • Prepare their questions for each session in the context of these goals 
  • Think about what they want out of each session

I find that this gives them time to reflect and identify what is important to them. 

“Mentoring, I feel, makes me a better designer and design leader.”

How do you approach mentoring? What would you say is your ‘style’? 

I take an ideation approach with my mentees, giving them room to grow and use their unique path. I like to inject positive energy into the sessions and focus on the strengths and learnings from missteps. Ideating with my mentee ensures that they develop the quality of seeing the big picture, always. 

In-Residence Program advice

How can one get the most out of a mentorship program? 

I believe that all designers should develop their leadership skills, and what better way to do this than become a mentor? Mentorship helps you to be a better leader as you get the opportunity to:

  • become an effective listener

  • extend your people leadership skills and

  • develop your communication skills

If you’re new to mentorship and need guidance with it, the brain trust a.k.a the other designers-in-residence, is a rich source of experiences, support and advice that is always interesting and informative. 

The Designer-In-Residence program is also a great opportunity for designers to articulate, express an opinion or ask a design-related question in a public forum, while in a safe space. They are wonderfully giving of their time and knowledge.

Finally, it is a wonderful community that provides an instant network of design professionals from across the industry.

Is there anything else you want to share with our community?

My advice to people who are starting on their journey as mentors is to use your engagement with this program to develop your skills as design and thought leaders. The first step towards that is to NOT prescribe approaches to mentees. Mentors are meant to create an environment for the mentee to support, guide and enable them to find their path. 

For mentees, the world is your oyster. It might seem that you are giving up your precious time for a mentorship session, but if you play your cards well, you’ll end up with a great relationship and a rich source of advice, guidance and design knowledge that is invaluable.

Academy Xi Blog

Student Spotlight: Berlin Liew

By Academy Xi

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Being introduced to UX design was a defining moment for Berlin; one that changed her career path and set her on a journey of self discovery. Berlin spoke with us about her experience studying UX Design and her ongoing passion for mentoring.

What was happening in your life before Xi?

I worked in digital advertising as a media buyer for 6-7 years. A manager from a previous life had met up with the user experience design team at AGL and she got in touch with me as she thought that I would really like the industry. She said ‘I think it lends itself as a discipline to your skills and if you haven’t already looked into it, I really think that you should’. And for me that sparked a whole journey of self discovery and finding out what UX was – at that point I didn’t know anything about it. It was just an acronym to me. So that’s how it started.

I studied UX Elevate in 2018.

UX is just an acronym for many people. In your own words, how would you describe UX?

I haven’t quite nailed it yet, which I think speaks for itself. There’s not one definition of what UX is and it depends on who I am speaking to as to how much I break it down, but a go to description of what it is: ‘helping digital experiences feel less clunky, more user-friendly and intuitive based on the customers’ needs, but also balancing what the business’ needs are and what tech can build’

I think that’s the best explanation I can give – otherwise it can lend itself to terms that the public may not understand. I don’t think my definition is perfect, but I think it can explain to others what I do.

Can you tell us about your experience of studying at Xi?

I completed my training in-house in Melbourne part-time, with classes twice a week after work. It was sometimes pretty tough balancing study and working full time. I was working at an agency back then, servicing NAB as our client, that alone was quite time-consuming. I was very busy so it was challenging and I did my work on weekends. 

The more I studied UX, the more I fell in love with it and I soon had the goal to switch careers into the UX field. I pushed myself to work harder to achieve that outcome for myself. Regardless of how busy work got, I found the time to make the balance between study and my job work out. It was an intense few months for me because I couldn’t let the ball drop at work and I really didn’t want to waste the Xi opportunity either.

Did the training enable you to achieve your goal?

Yes, but not at my existing workplace. In advertising as a media planner and buyer, it’s very numerical and quantitative. That environment is a great training ground for spotting trends, data analytics and stakeholder management, all of which I took on board when I moved into UX. What the course taught me was how to dig in deep to understand user needs, pain points, and then communicating that to a wider business. More of a customer focus. So the qualitative side of research and how you can translate it to any product or service you might be building. That mindset, I found, wasn’t always aligned in the advertising space. I felt if I wanted to switch careers into UX I would need to work elsewhere to make that happen.

The course helped solidify terminology, the process, and it exposed me to a lot of thinking that I perhaps wouldn’t have gathered on my own. That’s my learning style – I like being guided and I love the classroom experience when you don’t know anything about the topic. I loved studying UX, big time.

What did you do after your training?

About 5-6 months after finishing my course, I left the agency and then moved over to work in-house with NAB as an Experience Designer. They were one of the only companies at the time in 2018 that were hiring juniors, or people with less than two years’ experience in UX, so I jumped at the chance. Those opportunities were hard to come by then, they were very scarce in 2018. It just so happened I was familiar with them from my previous work.

Did you feel the training at Xi enabled that to happen?

I used what I learned in the training to get through the interview process. NAB asked for a design challenge to be completed. Had I not done the training, I’m honestly not sure I could have responded to that design brief. I basically had to reflect on what I had learnt and put it into a real-life context in this interview process. 

I didn’t have specific UX experience, but I could show that I was passionate and my existing skills transferred well with my training. I interviewed that morning and got a call that afternoon to learn I had landed the job. I think it was one of the best days of my life. It was such a tough transition, but I did it. Really the start of a whole new journey.

Where are you working now?

I was at NAB for about 8 months, then I left for a Telecommunications company called Belong. An opportunity opened up there and it was too good to pass on. Despite me moving companies, I left on good terms with my team at NAB. I stayed at Belong for a year and a half, and then moved onto Xero, which is where I’m at now as a Product Designer.

Was there a particular training highlight for you at Xi?

I was one of the earlier intakes of students for UX training. Back then, I think I was most excited by what I was learning. It was a whole space that was new to me. It opened my mind to a totally new way of looking at problems. The course content was delivered in a way that was consumable, it wasn’t too overwhelming and I truly loved it. I lapped it up! 

How did you find changing careers?

I think changing careers can be a very vulnerable time. It’s hard to explain or describe to someone. It can be a scary feeling to look at what you do and realise it’s not what you want and to make that call to change it. For those who define a lot of their identity with their work particularly that can be quite confronting. Taking a course is an investment, with no guarantee of what that will provide.

Xi provided great support during that transition, as did the mentors that I had while I was studying. I still keep in touch with them today, in fact I spoke to mine just a few days ago. This experience encouraged me to become a mentor myself.

Can you tell us about your mentoring experience?

About 6 months after I completed my training and was working in-house with NAB, I received a request to mentor for the same UX Design Elevate course at Xi. It was one of three mentoring experiences I had with Academy Xi. I think mentoring is really powerful. I’m still in touch with the first course I mentored, we got together for dinner recently. 

How has mentoring benefited you?

Mentoring challenges me to be extremely self-aware of what my own philosophy and opinions are. It encourages me to ask myself how I want to grow the next generation of designers, and consider what I did not have when I was breaking into the industry and what could be beneficial to others. I have been a part of the Xi Designer-in-Residence program since it started. I’m currently taking a break to give other budding designers an opportunity to mentor – I highly recommend it.

Looking at your career now, what aspect do you most enjoy?

I studied linguistics at uni and loved it – the study of language and how it works in society. I was told that if I wanted a career in this back in 2012 that it would have to be in academia and I didn’t want to work in academia. It’s very niche. Or I could do a masters in speech pathology; I didn’t want that either. 

The milestone for me during the study at Xi were the weeks where we looked into research to understand the benefits of talking to customers – actual interactions to discover their needs, wants and pain points and then translating that into something that you can use. That was similar to what I did in linguistics. Going out into the field, collating your findings, and writing your recommendations. It was an amazing moment for me because I could see that those same skills, that I had learned and loved, could be applied in a commercial sense. It was really exciting. 

I had filed that in my mind as something from my past that couldn’t be applied to a business setting. And now I can and I love that. A big moment of self-actualization that something I love could be a big part of what I do for a living. 

What would you say to anyone considering a career change into UX?

I would first ask myself:

  • What are the reasons for pursuing the change? 
  • What draws you into UX?

You need to listen to your own needs, not just jump because it’s a thriving industry or area to work in. Then you need to figure out how you want to get there. If you’re already working in-house, what are the chances you can explore UX within your organisation? Look for opportunities for a secondment or to shadow someone in the UX team. 

For those who don’t have the chance to explore in-house options, training with Academy Xi  is a great way to get the support and knowledge you need to be great in the job.

That place that I worked at at the time (in the agency) didn’t have an experienced design team. Because self-learning isn’t my strong suit, I knew that I’d benefit strongly from structured learning. Hence the course suited me very well. A pro of doing a course is that it is structured: there is a flow and you’re not always trying to work out what you need to learn next.

What is even better than the content at Academy Xi is their community. Xi strongly believes in support, so they’ve created the Designers-in-Residence program for that purpose, to connect full-time students to mentors. There’s also the alumni community, where you can connect with Xi alumni in the industry. That’s a huge factor with doing a course – getting access to those networks.

“I think what Xi offers as an education institution is amazing. I think they’re very attuned to the current needs and pain points of students and it is forever evolving based on that. To make a career change takes a big commitment, it’s not just about choosing the right training – you have to make sacrifices and it’s hard work. If you’re ready to do just that, I highly recommend Academy Xi.”- Berlin Liew