COGS Alumni Spotlight: Jessie Chen

B.Sc. Computational Intelligence and Design ’13
Senior Product Designer at Apple

Why did you choose Cognitive Systems as your focus in your degree at UBC?

To be honest, the initial thought mostly came from how disillusioned I felt about pursuing a pre-med curriculum in my undergrad, and the push and pull between finding myself and the pressure to build a lucrative career in the traditional sense. The desire to escape from classical sciences led me to my first computer science course at UBC (CPSC 111) taught by Prof. Kurt Eiselt, whose passion made me fall in love with programming. It was an easy decision to join the COGS program after that.

What was your first job after graduation and what other jobs did you have before your current position?

I started as a participant at the UBC Visual Cognition Lab (VCL) in my second year at UBC, mostly because I was curious about these $10 bills they were handing out for participating in their experiments. I eventually became a research assistant and worked as a lab manager until a year after my graduation. It was at VCL where I met many inspiring people who were passionate about vision science, a few of which became my bosses at Engage Data, a visual analytics startup. I worked under Engage as a full-time contractor at Boeing Vancouver for a couple of years before becoming a permanent Boeing employee and transitioning into a user experience design role.

How much of the career path that you are in now was planned in your time as an undergrad? Is it the career that you had envisioned?

Absolutely none. When I didn’t know any better, I thought I might become an anesthesiologist or a veterinarian. Fresh into the COGS program, I thought I could try out the co-op program and become a software developer. I went on to fantasize about going into data journalism when I was running research studies at VCL. Even when I was working as a visual analyst at Boeing, UX design as an industry was never really in the spotlight. In hindsight, everything that I had learned from the COGS program and my time in vision science research perfectly set me up for a career as a product designer, I just didn’t know it at the time.

What would you advise students that are uncertain about their path and overwhelmed by so many different career possibilities?

If you have the slightest curiosity about something, just go ahead and try it. Give yourself a trial period, and if it’s not for you, put it down and try something else. There is no such thing as “wasted time” from trying things because you will always learn something, even if the only thing you walk away with is the realization that it wasn’t a good fit for you. Take time to get to know the people you meet along the way — I definitely would not be where I am today without everyone who gave me the opportunities I needed.

What advice would you give to your first-year self?

Don’t worry, it’s okay that you’re bad at biochemistry. After this is all over, you won’t have to draw another subatomic diagram ever again.

What is your “COGS elevator pitch?” How do you talk about your time at COGS in job interviews?

COGS is a multi-disciplinary program that combines neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, and computer science. The program offered me an opportunity to explore the intersection of arts, science, and technology — not every major allows you to study the human consciousness and build lego robots side by side.

What is the most significant lesson, skill or trait you learned from studying COGS at UBC?

Thriving in ambiguity. As one of the first few cohorts to graduate from the program, I had first hand experience in being part of something that was unconventional and experimental. Being okay with the chaos that can come with tackling multiple disciplines helped me tremendously as I worked in both startups and big corporations. It has even shaped my outlook on life, too. Learning that it’s ok to say “I don’t know” and “let’s think about this from all perspectives” early on in my formative COGS years has made me a more curious, humble, and self-critical person overall.

What is one thing that you would do differently in your undergraduate background to advance your current career if you could go back?

Academically, I don’t think I would change anything. I wish that I had taken a gap year, become a co-op intern, or tried out a foreign exchange program before graduating. I think perhaps that could have eased some anxieties I had about the “real world”, and although that may not necessarily have advanced my career today, it might have given me the confidence I needed to pursue opportunities that I felt under qualified for.

What was the hardest part of entering the career that you are in now? Were there any sacrifices that had to be made in order to get where you are now? What is the most fulfilling aspect of your career?

Because the UX design industry had yet to become “mainstream” at the time, the hardest part of my role transition was the amount of self-learning required at a time where not many design courses, bootcamps, or even influencers existed. Starting out at a company with a very minimal design culture meant I didn’t have the mentors I needed to help me grow, so I leaned on my peers to learn and experiment with principles and processes together. None of us really knew what we were doing, but being “in it” together really helped me build confidence and learn from the mistakes we took turns making. Personally, I think the most fulfilling aspect of being a designer is that I get to solve tiny puzzles everyday. Each design problem and constraint I’m faced with adds to the thrill and satisfaction when I eventually arrive at an elegant solution.

What do you wish you had known about your position/the field before you started?

That the field is young, fads fade, and there’s no need to be the “unicorn” that every company is desperately looking for. Over the years, I’ve seen the definition of a great designer shift: it used to be about the ability to execute beautiful and sophisticated interfaces, then suddenly it was all about “full stack” designers who can code too. Later on, designers who specialize in design systems became all the rage. I’ve learned to let go of the pressure to constantly shape-shift into the most desirable form to the industry, and I’ve reconciled with the fact that teams full of unicorn designers probably don’t actually exist. Instead, finding a good fit with a team who understands how to utilize your strength as a designer is way more important, and it gives everyone more room to grow and learn from one another.

What advice do you have to build and maintain professional networks?

Honestly, I think I’m pretty bad at actively networking, so I probably shouldn’t be giving advice. I do try to push myself in over communicating my thought process and offering to help others with their work or cause in order to get outside my bubble. I’ve always thought that giving (or giving back) is a more motivating way to stay connected, as opposed to spending time maintaining a LinkedIn presence or attending conferences.

I believe the most important action that someone needs to take to build their career is…

…to squash their self-doubt. When I think back to every job opportunity I’ve had so far, each one started from an impulse along the lines of just go for it. I followed that impulse and approached the VCL research assistant who gave me $10 after the experiment I participated in. I responded to a tweet from a Twitter-famous design influencer who became my first manager at Apple. I sent out many cold messages on Slack and found my way to Apple Health Special Projects, a team I am grateful for being a part of everyday. The first step is to shake off the fear and believe that you’re worthy — then just go for it.