The Thirty-Something Apprentice
The tale of Viget's first momprentice.
When I hear the word “apprentice,” I think of curls of scented wood floating down from a lathe, the clatter of spanners on pipework, and rolls of electrical wire. I see fresh-faced recruits (likely men, in this sepia-toned musing) toiling away at the solid, handy trades of the Welsh valleys of my youth.
I certainly don’t picture a thirty-something mom of a boisterous toddler racing down the street from the parking garage in falling snow, in the nick of time for a 9 a.m. meeting at her User Experience Design apprenticeship.
Nonetheless, that was me. Viget’s first momprentice. In all her breathless glory, with a dirty diaper in the trunk of the car.
Changing careers in your mid-thirties is no joke. For many people, this is a time for rooting themselves deeper in what they know. Maybe they’re eyeing their next promotion. Maybe they’re updating their LinkedIn profile to read “15+ years of experience.” Maybe they’re starting side projects to add new and complementary skills to their impressive arsenal of expertise.
Or maybe they’re like me, trying not to have an existential wobble while doing something radical, embracing beginning at the beginning, again.
In 2017, after a decade working in newsrooms and media innovation in London, Paris, Beijing, and San Francisco, I was at a career crossroads. My baby daughter had recently arrived, an experience that did - as promised - turn the world upside down. There was unconditional love spooling out of me, yes, but also a cradle-full of responsibility. And, suddenly, so many questions about how to reconcile all the versions of myself, how to wear my new (mama) identity but not lose the old (professional, personal) ones.
I took some time out to take care of my baby. Leaving the workforce - like joining it again - can be scary. I felt invisible. Somewhat guilty. A little brave. And, because I wasn’t running through the snow to a meeting in the morning, I had time to start asking myself some really hard questions about what was next.
Should I go back to the milieu I knew, the rough-and-tumble of news reporting? Should I continue trying to reform an industry I loved and despaired over in equal measure? Should I start my own business, fly solo for a while? Or - and this kept nagging - act on the germ of an idea to pursue problem-solving through human-centered design?
I had learned design thinking at a media startup accelerator where we helped early-stage entrepreneurs scale their businesses and find product/market fit. Sometimes I was their guinea pig, testing out products and giving feedback as part of an iterative process. It wasn’t long before I sensed that I wanted to be on the other side of the table, asking the questions. It was time to stop telling stories about the people building cool products and start to build them myself.
Next came - cue the movie montage - being a full-time mom who studied during naptime and in the evenings. I took online classes, read books, invented projects, networked where I could, sought out mentors, designed a Project Management software tool with friends. Whipped it all up into a portfolio. Became more and more aware of how much I didn’t know - and looked for ways to fill those gaps.
Imposter Syndrome is real for a thirty-something apprentice. But I’ve been lucky. When Viget gave me a chance to join their team, they offered a safe space to be wobbly. They offered 360° mentorship from smart and thoughtful people, generous with their time. They showed that coming from somewhere else, being an expert in something else, is an asset, not a bind.
Viget’s UX designers are living proof of this. They have transitioned from fashion design, architecture, teaching mathematics, front-end development, and urban farming, and turned those diverse backgrounds into UX strengths. They believe that this wide range of perspectives makes a team complementary and empathetic. They see that there is an intrinsic richness to having taken the long way round.
If there’s one word I could use to define my experience at Viget, it would be “included.” I’m right there on the website, with my fellow apprentices, on an equal footing with the rest of the staff. I’ve contributed to client work, presented to the whole company, led brainstorms, joined critiques. I’ve sat in on meetings at the highest level, and been invited to Happy Hours and movie nights. I’ve tried curling and eaten gourmet tacos. And I’ve joined a ton of Slack channels, because I am welcome in them all.
Never once have I felt like “just the apprentice.” I’ve been asked for my opinion, and always taken seriously. My self-confidence has soared. And that’s made me see that this thirty-something apprentice thing - it’s all in my head. No one cares how old I am, or that there’s a dirty diaper in the trunk of my car. They care that I’m here, and pitching in, and learning. They care about helping make me the best that I can be.