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Frances-Mary Ukpokolo: from Production Engineering to User Researcher, UI/UX Designer & Co-founder

Social media handle(s): LinkedIn, @@phran_sess (Twitter)

A few words about me:

I am Fran (as most people call me), a User Researcher.

I'm currently working in the UK with the Ministry of Justice, on a Justice Digital project, through a company, dxw, that focuses on public sector issues. I am also a freelance UI/UX Designer and a Co-founder of an foodtech startup in Nigeria (where I am from).

I can be extremely shy (hence why I love my remote jobs :)) but when I get the chance, I love going to meet-ups and conferences and just evening hangouts with my friends.

I LOVE TO LEARN, no matter who is teaching. Right now, I am learning a lot about space and planets from a lovely 7 year old I used to babysit, it's amazing!

Are there any professional experiences you've had that are quite unexpected compared to what you do nowadays?

I wouldn't say I have been in any role that is unusual as compared to where I am right now. Most of my roles have been in organising and planning. I have been a Programs Manager, Project Manager, Event Planner (weddings mostly), Operations Officer, Volunteer in facilitating sessions and events, Waitresses and Retail Supervisor and even Babysitter (one of my best roles).

But you see, in any role I take up I always think about, "how does this benefit my career?", "where can this lead me to?", "what can I make out of this?". From babysitting for instance, I learnt how to be more confident, lead, follow and be spontaneous (there are a lot of surprises in babysitting). With other organisation roles, a lot of them required marketing and adverts, and I had design skills, so I helped with that. There were also a lot of talking to clients to ensure we got the right event done, which I do now in stakeholder management and user research. And hospitality? Well you learn a lot of team work, listening skills, charisma and fast working, which everyone needs :)

So the summary of this long talk is, No? Every role would teach one something useful down the line.

Is your background more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) or non-STEM related?

Oh yes, I studied Industrial and Production Engineering during my undergrad, worked as an Engineering Intern a number of times, and did my Masters in Product Design and Technology. So I would say STEM.

Where did your professional journey start?

It began in undergrad. My course focused a lot on organisation and human interaction with systems and that piqued my interest.

My uncle was a successful Mechanical Engineer. Even at age 10, I knew I wanted to be successful and this was my only model at the time, so engineering began to be my career goal.

Fast forward to entering my first year in undergrad, my mum advised I went into Industrial Engineering instead as she felt I would love this because as a lecturer she had asked around and got to know it was more about human-system interaction. My mum just always knew her kids and where they would do well, so till now, I do not know how exactly I drifted from Mechanical to Industrial. I loved every single one of the 4 years of the course however.

How did you get into tech and what motivated you?

In my third year, I was attempting to impress a guy who was a Graphics Designer (he's married to someone else now by the way), so I started teaching myself graphics design. I began to love designing day by day and experimented a lot with it. Later on, I diverted into UI/UX design because I had a male design mentor who navigated from Graphics to UI/UX design and I hadn't seen that many females in the field so decided to prove to myself that I could do this. When I started self learning, it wasn't strange at all. UX Design felt a lot like process optimisation I had done in undergrad with a bit of graphics design and a touch of knowing what the client wants which I learnt in event planning.

Around here was also when a friend of mine and I co-founded our tech startup with the intention of genuinely wanting to help reduce food shopping stress and cost for African women. I wanted to get better in app designs and understanding users and I decided to pursue a Masters in that area.

I am now a User Researcher and loving how I can understand, generate and translate users needs to improving systems for their use.

Have you experienced any 'career in tech' challenges / stereotypes?

Not really. I think I may be one of the lucky few... so far at least. I know I was 1 out of 4 girls in my undergrad amongst 30 boys, but this didn't really affect me.

I would say since growing up till now, people were more shocked I was in engineering and product design and felt I must have been very smart (a positive stereotype, but could get upsetting sometimes because you do not need to be so smart to be in these fields. I wasn't... lol). However, being a User Researcher (UR) didn't seem to get that many "oh wow, that is impressive". Which shocked me at first because UR is a huge part of tech and from my line manager to my colleagues all URs I work with have engineering and tech backgrounds.

As for being a black person, fortunately, I haven't faced any challenges there... yet.

"Go for it. Tech is the future and if someone hasn't started doing what you want to in tech, be the first. If a lot of people are doing it, make yours unique."

What you wish you knew before getting started in tech...

Nothing comes to mind - I am enjoying it and nothing has really surprised me so far.

What has been your biggest 'wow!' moment related to working in tech so far?

There are more females in tech now than when I was much younger with no female tech model. This was a 'wow' moment I had when I saw a number of UX Designers, Programmers and Software Testers written on females' bios on LinkedIn. It's amazing.

What do you like / not like about working in tech?

I solve global problems while being anywhere in the world. That I like. Right now, the negative bit for me is that I think tech removes a lot of human face to face interactions or makes us forget the beauty of things around us sometimes.

Some of my friends would rather use a dating app than walk up to a person in real life. Another thing, which I am guilty of, is multitasking (in the wrong way), tech does this, where you are on a call with someone for 2 hours and not saying anything and at the end of the call realise nothing concrete was said. It's weird, but I guess it helps you enjoy the presence of people far away.

"There are more females in tech now than when I was much younger with no female tech model... It's amazing."

What's been your favourite / most memorable / funniest 'career in tech' moment so far?

None that I can think of right now.

And to wrap up, is there any advice you'd like to give to others interested in a career in tech?

Go for it. Tech is the future and if someone hasn't started doing what you want to in tech, be the first. If a lot of people are doing it, make yours unique.

I would also say humans are impacted by tech so whatever you do or build in tech remember to think about those it would impact (positively or negatively).


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