From Irish Dancer to UX Designer


carlyephoto (1)As a Humanities major, Carlye Cunniff was always interested in people. But as an Irish dancer, she knew it would be tough to transition straight into a new role in a digital field.

Earlier this year, Cunniff realized she needed a change from running the dance company she founded. Unsure of where to start, but knowing she wanted to learn more about the tech world, she enrolled in GA’s HTML, CSS & Web Design Circuit, an online course designed to teach proficiency in HTML, CSS and Visual Design. After graduating she took the User Experience Design Immersive program in Seattle. She now works as a full-time consultant with The Creative Group—currently on contract at Amazon.

Exploring New Career Paths

“After four years, I knew I needed to do something different,” she said. “Working as a dancer was my dream growing up. But I found I was making art I wasn’t proud of. It was dictated by outside influences.”

Cunniff graduated with a degree in Sociology from the University of British Columbia. After working as an educator and a Park Ranger, she founded a dance company in Seattle—a goal she’d had since childhood. But as a co-founder, she spent less time dancing and more time taking care of the day-to-day business operations.

“I was dancing a lot and getting to go on tour but in order to make money I was working longer and longer hours on the admin side. I wasn’t doing the things I most enjoyed,” she explained. “I needed a change and more of a challenge.”

Over the winter, she outlined a list of prerequisites for a new role: namely something with greater flexibility and a healthy work / life balance. “I wanted to make art on my own terms and not be dictated by money,” she said. “So I started looking for things that would allow me to work creatively and do things that were challenging but still used my existing skills.”

Getting Acquainted with Tech

This past January, after hearing about GA through a friend, Carlye enrolled in the HTML, CSS & Web Design Circuit. Initially as a way “to test the waters of technology,” but also to learn more about expanding her company’s online presence. With no prior tech experience, the first weeks were challenging, but she found herself motivated as the course delved deeper into design fundamentals.

“Circuits taught me ‘why’ we needed to know something,” she said. “It helped me have a better understanding and build my confidence.”

As the course neared its conclusion, she decided to pursue this nascent interest further and enrolled in the User Experience Design Immersive in Seattle. As a Circuits student, she was eligible to put her full tuition towards payment for an Immersive course.

Designing a New Role

“The Circuits course definitely gave me a boost going into the UX course,” she said. “I had a significantly greater knowledge of the program before I got into the UX course, and my Sociology background and content strategy experience really helped to position me as a UX designer when I graduated.”

On her way to becoming a UX designer, Cunniff remarked that learning online had clarified her reasons for wanting a career change. Namely, the flexibility in learning and the ability to pursue work she is passionate about. “I’ve always been interested in solving creative problems through technology,” she said. “I was a freelancer for a long time so I had the soft skills to market myself and find work, but I didn’t necessarily know enough about the tech space to be successful.”

Given the current clamor surrounding jobs in the tech industry, Cunniff is refreshingly humble about the path she’s taken. After graduating from the UX course, she returned to GA and worked for the summer as a teaching assistant on the same course before taking a contract position at Amazon.

“I’m currently a UX designer with The Creative Group. I work mostly on the campus team at Amazon,” she said. On any given day, she finds herself drawn into a number of different teams. “I have a pretty flexible schedule. I work collaboratively on the design team, working with Product Managers to get different projects out. I do a lot of usability testing, I do lots of wireframes and hi-fi mockups.”

The Next Chapter

Though she spends less time dealing with code, she acknowledged the role Circuits played in her journey so far. “Circuits helped a lot with preparing for UXDI,” she said. “It taught me the vocabulary to talk to developers, how to code from a blank slate and how to build something from scratch. During the course, I coded up my portfolio and a few small business sites from scratch.”

Being able to code is becoming more and more valuable for UX designers, as Court Crawford, Carlye’s UX instructor in Seattle, explained: “In my interviews with design managers and recruiters in the local market, we found that if a design candidate demonstrated working knowledge of HTML, CSS, and Javascript, that became a differentiator in their hiring decision.”

From a dancer to a coder, and ultimately, a UX designer, Carlye has a blended skill set that has empowered her to get unstuck in her career and pursue fresh, meaningful opportunities.

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