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Professional Program Delivers: One ‘Jam-Packed Year’ Lands Megan Matsumoto in a New Career as Product Designer at Alation

After graduating from UC San Diego in 2013 with a degree in biology, Megan Matsumoto spent a few years working at various tech and biotech companies before finding her passion in human-computer interaction and user-centered design. Yet stepping into a career path based on her newfound interest required rebuilding her educational foundation. She started that journey four years ago as an inaugural member of UCI’s professional master of human-computer interaction and design (MHCID) program. She closed out the one-year program in 2017 with a capstone project that gave her real-world experience and an internship that helped her get a foot in the door at Alation, where she’s now a senior product designer.

What sparked your interest in human-computer interaction?
I spent much of my undergrad years working in various labs and thought I would go to grad school and eventually become a biology professor. However, in my last year of college, I realized I wasn’t that happy going to the lab every day and decided to take some time to work and figure out what I wanted to do. That led to a few years of falling into jobs at tech and biotech companies with roles ranging from event and account management to training and customer/tech support. One thing these various roles had in common was that they were very people centric, something I struggled with as an introvert but realized was missing from my lab work.

Another thing they all had in common was that, in some form or another, they involved me helping people learn about a product that was not easy to use. This got me thinking about the root problem causing folks to contact support; ultimately, they were design problems. I wanted to be helpful when relaying feedback to the product team, so I did some research, and that’s how I came across human-computer interaction and user-centered design. I love that it’s both scientific and human, using data points and patterns while also emphasizing that the things we put out into the world are used by people.

What prompted you to enroll in the MHCID program?
I knew I needed a career change. Though I did enjoy being able to help people, customer support is a rough job; people don’t really call when they’re happy. I explored different avenues to help me decide my next steps, researching bootcamps, community colleges and grad programs. In the meantime, I took local extension classes at night to see if UX [user experience] was what I really wanted to pursue. My extension class professors were helpful in guiding my decision to go into a grad program, but really, it’s up to the individual. Grad school was the right option for me but might not be for others, depending on their circumstances. I chose the MHCID program because, although it was longer and more expensive than a bootcamp, it gave me more time to learn the foundations and work on a capstone project with a real client.

As a student enrolled in the first cohort, did you have reservations?
I was definitely worried. I consulted one of my extension class teachers about the program, and he seemed skeptical about it being mostly remote. He told me it would be like learning to swim online and felt that a two-year program would look better to future employers.

However, after attending the information sessions, I felt more secure, because the program was designed to prepare you to work in the real world. It was a big commitment time and money wise, but I trusted the UCI name, and I decided that the remote aspect and one-year program was actually a benefit. It meant I could continue working full time, I wouldn’t have to move and pay additional room-and-board, and after one jam-packed year I could potentially be working in a new career that I loved.

Did the program meet your expectations?
I wanted a program that would prepare me to get out there and start working, and without a doubt, it did that! I use much of what I learned in the program as building blocks for my work today as a product designer. A lot of these things you can learn on your own through diligent research and reading, but it’s insanely difficult to know where to start and with what lens to read all the conflicting Medium articles. The program helped set a foundation to take in new information. Design and HCI are constantly evolving, so as someone switching careers, this foundation was crucial to getting me out of the career path I found myself stuck in.

What did you like best about the program?
The capstone project was by far the most stressful yet rewarding part of the program. We accomplished everything remotely since our capstone team was spread out across the country, covering Northern and Southern California, South Carolina and New York. This taught us not only about organizing ourselves as a team, but also about communicating with our client remotely and involving them in the design cycles. We also learned so much from our teammates and our cohort; it was amazing learning from their diverse skill sets. Anyone looking at grad programs with the intent of switching careers should find one with a capstone project!

How did it help advance your career?
The first half of the program was a whirlwind of information, but we also had projects that we could include in our portfolios to start applying for internships if we wanted. In the summer, when we were in full swing with our capstones, I was fortunate to start a UX design internship at a startup, an opportunity I could accept because of the remote nature of the program. During the internship, I learned that a program is not the same as shipping a real product, but that’s not the point. The program taught me to speak with more confidence in my new role and I was able to bring in the skills I had just learned. The program also reminded me what it’s like to be a student, always learning and striving to be better, and showed me how to apply that attitude to my career. At the end of my internship, I was offered a full-time position, and I’m still growing with that same company today.

Any words of advice for prospective students interested in the program?
First of all, consider whether your career plans align with the program goals. If so, make sure you can commit to meeting those goals. You may not need a graduate program to get to where you want to be, so don’t be afraid to reach out to faculty and past students of the MHCID program to get their perspectives.

If you’ve already decided you want to apply, awesome! I’m not going to sugarcoat the program — it will be a busy and stressful time, balancing all the new aspects of life that school will bring. However, approach each project and assignment as a representation of you, and it’ll show when you present your work during interviews to future employers. If you focus on learning and building relationships, you’ll get out of the program multiples of what you put into it.

Shani Murray