This is the first in a series of profiles on women in human-computer interaction. Students from Carnegie Mellon University’s Masters of Human-Computer Interaction program are conducting interviews with women in HCI to identify how they have broken through the “glass ceiling” in industry. The profiles will highlight the career path of the particular interviewee and other biographical information. This following profile focuses on Leah Culver.
Still in her twenties, Leah Culver has already managed to complete a degree in Computer Science, work for a variety of companies including IBM, Instructables (a how-to and DIY social community site), and Six Apart (creators of Moveable Type), and co-founded a web-based blogging and social messaging application, Pownce, alongside Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka from Digg. And, she’s not done yet. The day of our interview was Leah’s last day at Six Apart. While, her dream job is to start a new business that works on game-changing technology, she’s waiting for the same good set-up she had when starting Pownce. Until that happens she will be working as a contractor helping other companies achieve their goals, continue working on side projects and keep up with the latest web trends so that she can help build innovative products. This article will focus on what it took for Leah to start and run Pownce.
After graduating with a BS in Computer Science from University of Minnesota, Leah set out to become a Web Designer. Since Leah’s career stemmed from her passion for making websites she never saw Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) as something separate from Computer Science; for her, the user’s interaction with the website should drive the development – “it’s the whole point.” After moving to the Bay area, Leah found herself switching to smaller and smaller start-ups. Gradually it occurred to her, “Maybe I should do this myself.” With the help of connections and support from friends, she decided to take the leap and start her own company. Leah stressed how important it is to have the right atmosphere when starting a new company, including people you enjoy working with and an understood direction you want to head. You can change and evolve the product as you develop it, but the overall vision and who you are working with are key elements that should be consistent throughout the project.
Leah says when starting Pownce “everything just fell into place,” but we don’t underestimate the hard work and dedication she committed to the start up. She expressed trepidation jumping into something that she wasn’t “quite ready for yet” and admitted that her biggest obstacle was herself. No one in her family had started a company before, nor developed software, and undoubtedly she was faced with a lot of unknowns. She often felt she would “freak out,” or worry she wasn’t doing the right things. However, through the process, Leah learned how to trust herself. One of the most important lessons she shared with us was “when you own a company, it’s important to hold true to what you want.” Your insecurities should not allow the design to go astray. While Leah is not fond of conflict, she will stand by a product’s need to have a cohesive vision and unified voice so that features make sense and work well together. In being involved and responsible for every aspect of Pownce, Leah gained invaluable experience from starting her own company; it helped her gain self-confidence and now, when she faces difficulties or is afraid of being wrong, she doesn’t let it bother her and holds true to her vision.
Here are a few parting words of advice from Leah for women starting out in HCI:
- Have your own website with a portfolio of interesting work. One of Leah’s favorite books is Designing with Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman; she’s a big fan of not only having a website look great on the outside, but the inside as well.
- Start your own blog. Leah currently has 3 blogs and Twitters daily. Leah reads blogs to stay-up-to-date with current User Experience trends. Three of her favorite blogs:
- oktrends (blog.okcupid.com): oktrends is run by OkCupid.com. It shows trends in dating and is geared at improving your dating profile, but it gives a lot of insight into the psychology behind people’s motivations.
- cxpartners.co.uk: cxpartners.co.uk has guest bloggers and gives a lot of interesting tips and observations on interface design
- alistapart.com: alistapart is all about the web, directed toward designers but a great resource for up-to-date trends
- Meet people and network.
- Be innovative: “Push the boundaries in making things.”
- “Do what you really love, don’t let other people tell you what you should be doing, in your career and in your life.”
- Taking risks, while they may not work out, usually give you a better reward. Leah says, “I’ve never done anything that I’ve really regretted. I think reaching out and taking risks is totally worth it.”
About the Authors
Kami Neumiller holds a BS in Computer Science from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. After working in the software development industry for over 5 years, she decided to return to school and pursue a degree in Human-Computer Interaction with the goal of designing software applications that are not only functional, but provide an enjoyable and compelling user experience. She is expected to complete her degree in December 2010.
Vaishali Jain holds a BS in Information Systems from SUNY Stony Brook in Stony Brook, NY. After working as a developer in the financial industry for 3 years, she felt compelled to return to school and pursue a degree in Human-Computer Interaction. Her ultimate goal is to create meaningful products that enhance everyday experiences. She is expected to complete her degree in August 2010.