They’re a rather mysterious concept out of context – after all, I never did a job shadow when I was growing up or even when I was in college. The closest I ever got was visiting my dad’s engineering firm, running around, playing on the computers and being AMAZED at all the choices of beverages he stocked. (How prophetic, since almost every place I’ve ever worked is a member of the free-soda-and-assorted-beverages club.) And I think that’s part of what can make it difficult to find volunteers for job shadows – the uncertainty of “What on earth would I do with a student in my office for several hours?”

A dear friend of mine contacted me a week or two ago – the daughter of her friends attends a middle school that requires a job shadow, but her parents couldn’t bring her to work because they’re nuclear welders for the military. (I can see how that might be a tad dangerous.) Could I shadow her? In the end, in an effort to get her a lot of variety, we split her day up into several sessions with women working in different disciplines – UX design, HR, SDET, PM in games, etc. That’s always one option should you be interested in hosting some students but intimidated by letting them stay for a long time – shake things up.

So, this past Monday, I got to meet the young girl. I was her first session of the day, and I couldn’t tell if she was disinterested or intimidated. I chose to assume intimidated, and we started by discussing my (impressive) office Pikachu collection to warm things up. She had brought a questionnaire from her school that we worked through, and intermittently I’d show her the different things I was working on between questions. It turns out she’s already familiar with Adobe Fireworks, which is a big win right there (she’s only in 7th grade!) I showed her the kind of work I did with that tool, and the ways I use other tools she’s familiar with (like Powerpoint for wireframes… I know, that’s a different blog post) to do my daily work.

It’s also important to remember that almost everything they’re seeing is new, and that they may have no context for the level of technology we’re surrounded with. I made sure to point out what awesome resources I have available to me – she was fascinated with the fact that I had a powerful PC with 2 huge monitors AND a laptop, where she originally thought the laptop must be powering the screens. And just as useful as discussing the work is discussing the type of life your job lets you lead. A lot of careers that girls are traditionally primed for don’t have nearly the same earning potential, so I often discuss what it’s like to buy your own new car or house/condo.

We also went on a tour of my team’s (pretty awesome) usability labs. I showed her how the camera setups work, and she was interested in the one-way mirror concept. Until she realized she had seen it before – “They had one of these on Spongebob!”

Cue feeling old.

Eventually, our short time together was up – she had definitely warmed up since our initial introduction. This has little to do with job shadows in general, but my heart melted when, as we sat waiting for the shuttle to take her to her lunch meeting, she pulled out a tiny Pokemon figurine from her pocket to show me. (A Turtwig, if you’re as interested as I am.) I must have earned her trust at some point, since she had been keeping it hidden the rest of the time despite my 20+ office Pokemon.

You don’t always get a follow-up from job shadows – sometimes you put yourself out there and never find out if it resonated. In this case, I got a note from my friend the next day: “Thank you SOOOOO MUCH for meeting with [removed] yesterday!  Yours was by far her favorite session, and she wouldn’t stop talking about wanting to do design!!!” When we met later, my friend reiterated the sentiment, saying that this girl has decided she wants to work at Microsoft and wants to do *my* job.

I have to say, that feels pretty awesome, and it only takes an hour or two to make an impact like that. And things may change over time; she’s only in 7th grade. But she didn’t come in knowing anything much about tech careers, and she came out energized with a plan. Even if she doesn’t choose UX design, if I helped in some small way towards helping her find her dream job, that’s awesome. I had help finding mine, and it’s nice to pay it forward.

Feel free to add your own job shadow experiences or tips in the comments section. This one was a short one, but on longer ones I usually take the girls around to meet my coworkers, especially because my team is diverse with a good gender balance and I want them to see that. Taking them to meetings is also a reasonable option, though I opted against it this time because the meetings I had that day weren’t really design-oriented meetings.

ASIDE: I do want to mention something that struck me going through the questionnaire from her school. On one part of the survey, they asked “How important are the following skills to your job?” The three areas were “Following directions”, “Accuracy”, and “Working with others.” Working with others is a definite, of course, and I emphatically made that point, but… the other two? Are we teaching our kids to be little robot automatons? What about creativity? Leadership? Passion? I actually made the point that accuracy is a difficult one in design – our job is to explore all kinds of solutions when there’s not necessarily one right answer. I know that middle school isn’t exactly college, but I wish those questions had been a little more inspiring. It just illustrates how important it is that we all get out there and talk to students and open their eyes to what’s available to them out in the world.