Women in UX: Meet Catherine Courage, the Google Exec Encouraging Designers to Take Chances

by Sheena Lyonnais

posted on 11-22-2017

Catherine Courage knows what it’s like to take a risk. It was the beginning of the first tech boom, when the Internet suddenly became ripe with opportunity and businesses began growing at rapid, unprecedented rates. Courage was fresh out of grad school, having studied in Toronto, Canada, when a recruiter encouraged her to see what was happening down in Silicon Valley.

Before she knew it, Courage found herself signing the dotted line, packing her bags, and heading to the west coast. She planned for a three to five year stint, at most, and asked herself, what’s the worst that could happen?

That was 18 years ago.

Now, Courage is the vice president of user experience at Google. She’s come a long way from her roots in Newfoundland — an island province on the east coast of Canada. Ahead of her time, she co-authored the book, Understanding Your Users, more than a decade ago with key messages about human-centered design that remain relevant today. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Among her accolades, Forbes named her one of the 10 rising stars at the World’s Most Innovative Companies back when she worked at Citrix in 2013.

She advocates as much for her users now as she does for the tech industry — speaking at events across the country to encourage people, especially women, to enter the field and take chances. If the idea of working in the tech world, or in a job you don’t quite feel qualified for, scares you, even better.

“Was I nervous packing my bags and leaving Toronto, my friends, and this area I knew? Absolutely,” Courage said, “but Toronto is always going to be there and if it’s a disaster I could always go back, so why not take a chance that could be a truly exciting adventure?”

Courage talks about igniting creativity to transform corporate culture at TedxKyoto in 2012.

Not one for regrets, Courage hesitated initially a few years later when she came across an opportunity at Google. The position was “outside of her domain,” she said. One that would require her to inherit a massive budget and team when she was used to building them from scratch, but the challenge intrigued her. She lives by the quote from IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, “Growth and comfort don’t co-exist.”

“If I’m looking at a job description and I go, ‘oh boy, I’m not sure this is quite the right job for me’, then that’s probably a sign that it is something that I should be applying for,” Courage said.

“There is no excuse for being in a role you’re not happy in.”

Recently, Courage spoke at the Grace Hopper Celebration — known as the world’s largest gathering of women technologists — and touched on another point: there is so much opportunity in tech and design that there really is no reason to remain in a position you’re not happy in.

“I’m a big believer that you really own your own destiny and you own your own career,” she said. “You have to map out what is making you unhappy. There’s usually a set of things you can control and a set of things you cannot control.”

If you can control it, she said, then you can get back into a place where you’re happy. If you can’t control it or fix it, then maybe it’s time to move on.

“Too often I see women, in particular, have this sense of accountability that there must be something I’m doing wrong. It’s a great job — there must be something I can fix. Sometimes that’s not the case,” she said. “You should cut your losses and do something else as opposed to wasting years that aren’t fulfilling to you. My area of expertise in the tech market is design, and it’s strong and thriving. People are very sought after, and often forget that.”

Courage has always been proud to be a woman in tech.

Working in Tech is Better For Women Than Is Often Portrayed

Not only are too many people staying in jobs they don’t like, but there are also too many generalizations about what it’s actually like to be a woman in tech, especially. The idea that tech isn’t a good place for women prevents some from taking chances that could lead them to a better, happier, more lucrative career.

“There’s no doubt there are some problems and challenges, but if I were to reflect on my experience, I’ve had a wonderful experience in tech. I am so grateful for the career and the opportunity that it’s provided me,” Courage said.

She feels lucky at Google. Her team is incredibly diverse from all ethnicities, genders, locations, and perspectives — something she admires. Not to mention that tech companies are paving the way for improved parental leave benefits in America, with Google, Netflix, and Adobe among those offering paid parental leave in the country.

“It’s not to discount people who have not had great experiences, we need to work on and improve those, but I wish we did a better job telling the other side of the story, which is that many of us have positive and rewarding experiences in this industry,” Courage said. “I think the positives often get overshadowed by some of the negative things that happen.”

Courage believes in sharing her knowledge—whether at a conference like this one or one-on-one with a mentee.

Start By Taking Tiny Chances

If you haven’t yet found your inner courage, perhaps you can harness some of Catherine’s. She’s all about opportunity, and all too often this means creating your own.

Let me just go back to that line of growth and comfort don’t co-exist. If you’re not doing something all the time that challenges you, you’re not growing,” she said.

Start small. Figure out what it is you want, and don’t be afraid to go after it.

“For people day in and day out, find something that’s a little bit out of their comfort zone. Maybe it’s raising your hand for a 20 percent project that’s outside of their specific domain, or it’s finding a mentor who’s not necessarily in their area of specialization.”

As Courage said, your skills are in demand. The tech world needs people for a wide variety of roles such as engineers, product managers, marketers, designers, human resources, fine artists, and of course, software engineering. However, she feels the latter is sometimes perceived as the only option.

“I wish we did a better job of helping young girls understand that working for tech doesn’t just mean coding,” she said.

“Every role I’ve had in my career in tech, I’ve very much felt like I’ve been trusted and empowered to do the right thing. I feel that is something you often see in this industry. You really feel like you’re a contributor and a driving force. That, to me, is rewarding.”

It might even be worth taking a chance.

Topics: Creativity, Design

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