A career in UX design is a long way from working as a Navy photographer and plunging 91 feet to the ocean floor to document explosive ordinance cleanups off the coast of Africa.
Sometimes Jumar Balacy plays it in his head backwards, starting from today where he has a great job as a user experience designer at Amazon in Silicon Valley.
He runs through how he got each job before this one, the training it took, the decisions he made, his six years serving in the U.S. Navy, and the pretty poor-paying job he had right after his military service. And, he wonders how he can help pave a UX design career path for veterans coming after him.
Creating a UX Design Pipeline
“It’s just a wild idea that I have,” he says, citing a plethora of mentorships and boot camps for entry-level STEM jobs. “But, nothing like that exists for veterans that want to be designers. Someone coming out of the military might not even know that design is a choice.”
After leaving the Navy, Balacy recalls earning less than he made before serving.
“There’s quite a few veterans who are underemployed. That’s part of where this is coming from.”
Designing a Scalable Approach
Ideally there would be guideposts along the way, outreach, training, recruitment, and internships, he says. At every step of the way, there would be mechanisms in place to help people pick up skills, understand the industry, and meet the people who can help them succeed.
“People have been asking me how they could get into design and I was thinking, what can I do?” It’s “a 10 percent side project,” he says. He’s reaching out on LinkedIn to former veterans in the UX design field and asking them how they made the transition. He’s looking for some common threads.
From Fleet Combat Camera Pacific to UX Design
Balacy’s own journey includes a computer science degree from UC Irvine that included human computer interaction courses, an underwater photography career in the Navy as a mass communication specialist, and a tech support job at Symantec that turned into a UX design position. He saw a missing piece of the process—UX expertise—and decided to bring it himself.
“I took that as my opportunity to develop task flows, develop wireframes, to kind of be that bridge,” Balacy says. “Eventually I just became the UX designer for them.”
Establishing UX Design Credentials
He enrolled in the UCSC Silicon Valley Extension User Experience and Web Design certificate program to formalize his training. He learned more about the UX design process and the fundamentals of design thinking. In his final Capstone User Experience Project course with instructor Teresa Hardy, he used his programming experience and new understanding of design to build out a microsite for a San Francisco sci-fi author.
“That was my favorite course for sure,” he says. “Everything we learned, all the mechanics, we got to practice it in that project.”
It took him less than a year to complete the UX and Web Design certificate.
After graduating with a certificate, he was promoted.
“It helped me establish myself as an expert within my org.”
UX Skills for Hire
One of the pearls of wisdom that sticks with him today is to avoid being personally tied to the effort you put into a project.
“You have to be able to defend every pixel on the page,” he says, quoting UCSC SV instructor Alp Tiritoglu.
“That is a design truism. Everything there is up for review. Just be tied to getting the best result for your users.”
Eventually Symantec’s enterprise security business was acquired by Broadcom in 2019 and Balacy went out on his own to freelance for other Silicon Valley companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Perficient Digital Labs. He landed his current job at Amazon in March.
Translating the Veteran Experience
UX design is as much about problem solving as it is about visual design. For veterans who are trained to be leaders, their strong decision making skills can translate well to the UX process.
“There is this mix of art and science,” Balacy says. “I really like that blend of different disciplines. At the beginning, there is an expansiveness of your thinking. Then, there comes a time for the analytical mindset. That has to take over. As designers, we’re constantly balancing between this blue sky outlook and a very focused analytical view. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. I really like that in my career today.”
Sure, most veterans will need some retraining, but at the core of UX design, it’s about problem solving.
“If you’re someone who can take a problem, break it down to its component parts and synthesize something new, if people feel confident about that, I feel like they’re going to make a good designer.”