“And you may ask yourself – Well…How did I get here?” – The Talking Heads
This summer marks my tenth year as a practicing information architect. It is not surprising that a decade of reflection would yield some lessons, but instead of lessons I want to share with you the story I told at this year’s IAI Annual Meeting.
This is the story of how the last ten years unfolded for me.
When I was 21 I got my first job as an Information Architect. I was actually hired as a freelance graphic designer. They needed a set of icons for this business process software that I couldn’t see because it wasn’t done yet. I made the icons in my design silo but when I was faced with how they looked in the actual interface, I was revolted. I asked if I could give them the money back and take my icons.
It was shortly thereafter that they offered me a job as an information architect to design a better menu system for that software. I had heard of the term information architecture before, in design school. But a job existing around doing IA work for software was really news to me. And I was immediately hooked.
When I was 22 I attended my first real design conference, it was a bonus I was awarded at work for a big project’s successful completion. I met Jared Spool after waiting through the very long line he had after his talk. When I got to the front of the line I said “Hi, I’m Abby” and then promptly realized I didn’t have anything to really say to him, I was just in awe. It was so much pressure, I froze awkwardly, turned violet and excused myself quickly to go back to my hotel room to take pictures of all my sketch notes and look at all the new blogs the speakers had told me about, like Boxes and Arrows.
When I was 23 I saw Steve Krug talk at a local college that I lived an hour from. I tried to convince my few IA co workers to go with me but they were busy and didn’t want to make the drive. So I arrived alone, sat alone and left without giving anyone a business card or even attempting to say hi to anyone.
When I was 24 I moved to Chicago from New Hampshire. I knew no one but managed to get a small agency to give me a shot in convincing them it was important to do information architecture work for their clients. I was a team of one and with no one above me in IA, I lacked mentorship and felt myself hitting walls.
When I was 25 I hired my first employee. I felt totally out of my depth but my clients loved my work and my co workers seemed to think I knew what I was doing.
When I was 26 my small agency had bought into IA and even agreed to send me to something very exciting… the 2008 IDEA conference hosted by the IA Institute, to be held in Chicago, where we were based.
This time I was on a mission, I would not leave that conference without some next step. Some person in the IA community who I didn’t work with that could help me find my way from junior to mid. And most importantly I promised myself that I would not let my anxiety get in the way.
And I found that person. Andrew Hinton, who gave the closing talk that year. I walked up to him at an after party and asked how a person could get involved with this whole IAI thing. He told me I should join the mentor program and get a local mentor. He pulled Russ Unger aside and introduced me.
That night I became an IAI member and Russ Unger was the first email I sent after my mentor matches came back. He took me out to lunch shortly after and we started meeting to talk about my career and the IA questions I was facing. He was writing his first book at the time and I just found it incredible that there was this whole world of confident IA professionals sharing their thoughts with the world, for everyone to build on. It was truly inspiring. I registered on Twitter as @Abby_the_IA and was shamelessly teased for my use of underscores in a world where Twitter was still text message based and my choice of job title in a world where the wave of UX was rolling through rapidly.
At the time, Russ was working as the new President of the IAI on the next IDEA conference. Russ asked if I wanted to be involved with planning the conference and I of course eagerly accepted. Having extensive experience in theatrical productions and working at music venues, the idea of using my event production skills to help IA made so much sense to me. Next thing you know, I was in charge of project managing the whole thing. It was a blast. It was hard. It changed me entirely. It was as if I had started to come out of my shell.
When I was 27 I met Jennifer Bohmbach at IDEA in Toronto and she offered me the position of producer of the IA Summit, which I had never even heard of before. The Phoenix IA Summit was a life changing event for me. I spent most of it hiding my face behind my clipboard (with the exception of when I hid my face in Richard Saul Wurman’s birthday cake but that’s another story)
When I was 28 I had 6 years of experience as an IA and had run two successful national IA conferences. People all over the global IA industry were starting to have minor moments of recognition when I was around or mentioned. I started to get more involved with the IAI board of directors advising them on the future of IDEA. I was eventually credited along with Dan Klyn with the idea of creating a free one day global celebration of IA, originally called “IDEA Streams” now called “World IA Day.”
When we came up with this concept, we envisioned a future where anyone with a love for IA could make a local community event happen. Our hope was to grant permission to all the smart people out there that want to be involved and just needed help finding that first step.
After I became known for running events for the IAI, people starting telling me that they liked my sketch notes and my hand drawn explanations of simple IA concepts. I started to hear that I should write my thoughts about IA down. I heard that other smart people wanted to read what I had to say. So I started writing a blog as Abby the IA.
It was not long after that someone said “you know Abby, you might be good at speaking” — and I thought “hey why not try and see what happens”
When I was 29 I gave my first big talk. I was a total basket case and anyone in the room that day will tell you that it was rough. But I did it. And called my mom immediately to share my pride and relief. Shortly thereafter I quit my day job and ran away to New York City and pursue my dreams.
When I was 30 I was getting more speaking and writing opportunities. I had discovered a love of teaching and started to pursue it by teaching my first semester long class in IA at undergraduate art school, Parsons the New School. It didnt take long before I realized I would have to change my whole life to fit in teaching, and so I started making changes to how I plan my time and my work.
Now I am 31. I am the current president of the IA Institute. I work for myself. 68 talks and 56 classes later — I teach at two art schools in New York City that I could only have dreamed of attending as an art school student ten years ago. And it is part of my job to travel all over the world talking to people about the power of information architecture.
I wrote all this down for you here today because it occurred to me recently that the reason I have achieved my dreams over the last ten years is because I was given the permission to lead when I needed it. And the good folks at the Information Architecture Institute were the ones that granted me that permission. They took a chance on a strange kid from the caribbean. And for that I will be forever grateful.
Now I am proud to be in the position to give that permission to other hungry, smart minds ready to lead. Because I know that just like me, those people are out there just looking for their first or next step.
If you are a capable, task oriented and humble person looking to learn, grow and give back to IA, I hope you will strongly consider bringing World IA Day to your hometown in 2015.
You never know what might happen next.