Inspirational Woman: Leah Buley | Group Vice President, Experience Research Lead, Publicis Sapient

Leah Buley HeadshotLeah is a recognized thought leader in the experience design industry and a prominent voice for the evolving importance of design in business.

Her published research and frameworks have been lauded for helping to advance global understanding of design maturity.

Leah was most recently a director of design education at InVision, where she conceived and drove new research on the state of the design industry to strengthen InVision’s leadership position in the design field and build credibility to high-level business leaders.

Before that, Leah was a principal analyst at Forrester Research, covering the role of design in business. There, she published research in the areas of customer experience, user experience, and service design.

Leah learned everything she knows about design at the pioneering UX consultancy Adaptive Path, where she spent her formative years as a design practitioner. There, she worked as an experience designer, design researcher, and ultimately design lead. At Adaptive Path her clients included ASICS, Capital Group, New York Life, Nokia, Vodafone, UCSF, Vail Resorts, and Vanguard.

Adaptive Path was known for developing and promoting new UX design techniques, and what Leah learned there she later documented in her book, The User Experience Team of One: A Research and Design Survival Guide. In it she addresses how design-minded individuals in any type of organization can work cross-functionally with their colleagues to produce better experiences for customers. It is used as an introductory text in college courses on human centered design.

Before all that, in the halcyon days of the late 90s and early 2000s (feeling old), Leah worked in-house in a series of hybrid design and development roles. Leah’s first job out of college was working as an editor at Dissent Magazine, a magazine about politics and culture. But her favorite part of the job was managing the web site, which is how she got her start in tech and design.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My professional life started at basically the same moment that the internet mainstreamed, in the late 1990s. Since then, my entire career has ridden that wave.

In the very beginning, I was a front-end developer. But I was envious of the people who got to design the interfaces, so I quickly transitioned to experience design. (Though back then we called it information architecture.) As digital became more essential to how businesses interact with their customers, my work evolved into pure experience design, and then experience strategy roles. Around the time that big tech companies like Salesforce and Capital One, and old school management consultancies like McKinsey, started acquiring design agencies, I moved into a role working as an industry analyst, covering the evolving importance of design to business differentiation.

Along the way, I wrote a book, The User Experience Team of One, from Rosenfeld Media, and developed several widely-cited models for gauging experience design maturity.

Today, I work at Publicis Sapient, where I’m a VP of Experience. I work with our Chief Experience Officer John Maeda to look ahead to where digital is pointing next, explore what that means for our customers, and ensure that our teams have the skills and resources they need to continue to practice at the crest of the digital wave.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No way. If I had followed my career plan, today I’d be working as an editor at a print magazine—which probably would have gone out of business anyway. The reality is that the career that I ended up having didn’t exist when I was starting out. I couldn’t have even conceived it.

Rather than follow a plan, I’ve navigated a path where you figure out your next step based on where you are now. Like using a compass, instead of a map.  I’ve treated each moment in my career as a decision point to decide what the next step should be. The recurring theme for me has been that at each step, I’ve learned just enough to realize that there was something more I’d like to know, and I’ve sought out subsequent roles to fill in that knowledge.

For instance, when I was working as an experience lead at Adaptive Path, a pioneering user experience consultancy, I realized that design thinking as a core competency was going to become more and more interesting to companies—not just as a service to purchase, but also as an in-house capability—so I decided to join Intuit, an organization that was out in front at the time in bringing design thinking capabilities in-house. From Intuit, I became aware that design was becoming important beyond just pure tech companies, so I moved to Forrester Research, to have the resources and purview to research the importance of design across industries.

I’m still trying to learn. At Publicis Sapient, I’m interested in what happens when experience and technology become utterly fused, and AI and voice and cloud technology and connecected devices reimagine our longstanding ideas for what digital is and does. At Publicis Sapient, we have such smart, talented forward thinking people. It’s a great place to be learning right now.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

My most signficant career challenges have been of my own making—by being too perfectionistic, hoarding work, and not trusting enough in others around me.

Eventually, I came to realize that the downside of perfectionism is you never get to be surprised by how brilliant and creative other people are. You also rob others of their chance to learn, excel, and deliver. And then of course there’s all the extra work and lost sleep. That’s no fun.

I don’t know that you can ever fully overcome perfectionist tendencies, but now that I have young children, I simply can’t give as much time to the details as I used to, and it’s forcing me to learn how to let go and trust others.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Publishing a book was a major achievement for me. My book came out in 2013. It was a labor of love, to document what I had learned at the most challenging parts of my own career to date. Six years later, it is used as a text in university level courses on experience design. And I regularly receive emails and notes from people who share that it helped them get into the user experience field. It’s a point of extreme pride for me to have helped in some small way the next generation of experience designers who have found their calling.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I was collosally lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I happened to learn HTML in undergrad right at the very beginning of the internet, which meant that I was able to get a job, before many others even knew of this profession. I happened to move to San Francisco, mostly for the views, in 2003, at a moment when the tech industry was starting to resurge after the first bubble. I went to a few truly lucky happy hours, which happened to have networking opportunities that placed me in really great jobs. As I look back on my career, it is abundantly clear to me that the secret to my success has been the people that I met along the way.

The challenge is now how can those of us who are here in the industry, open our arms and invite in others who may not have been there at the right moment, at that magical happy hour. How can make it clear that they’re invited too, so that we can foster a more inclusive field with more diverse people designing products and services to serve a more diverse world.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

The beauty of technology is that it’s so democratic. You don’t have to have a £200k education to learn React, or Python, or experience design, for that matter. You can teach yourself. The best way to learn is simply by doing. Or, for a little more structure, there are so many great online courses and accelerated bootcamps today to learn quickly.

And then of course, there’s this: half of the work of being really successful in technology is being a good partner and consultant. You know, soft skills. If the most important thing is to learn how to tinker and put your hands on the work, the second most important thing is to learn how to do that in partnership with other people. Joining a professional services firm was a good way for me to learn that, sometimes painfully, but the lessons definitely stuck. And I found that those consultative skills served me well, even when I went back in house. If you get the chance to work in professional services, it’s a great training ground.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I do indeed. It’s simple math. In the US, women made up just 26% of the tech workforce in 2018, and for women of color, that number dropped to the single digits. The reality is that when a group is under-represented, its perspective is under-represented. And as humans, we tend to network with and provide opportunies to people who are like us. So the fact that there are so few women in the field means that there will be some forms of exclusion and bias, despite all best intentions.

That has real consequences. It means that women benefit from fewer of the networking advantages that drive wealth creation in tech, particularly in startups. Recent research from Carta, a company that manages starup equity, found that women make up 31% of employees in the startups in their study, but hold just 6% of overall wealth.

Even in large enterprises, women are still simply less likely to be promoted. McKinsey recently identified that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 72 women are promoted. The cumulative effect of this winnowing of female leadership is the low number of women leaders at the top that continue to plague the tech field (and others).

So what can we do about it? To overcome these barriers, we have to correct the numbers. To start, we must be honest about the numbers: how many women are in our tech orgs? Of those, how many represent intersectional identifies, like women of color? How many are in leadership positions? When opening new roles, how many women candidates are in consideration? We must know our numbers and set ambitious targets.

One of the things that most impressed me about Publicis Sapient when I joined was that the company has made a top-line goal to increase the number of women in leadership positions—a goal that has been quantified and baked into company-wide OKRs. That feels bold and risky but absolutely the right thing to do. Ultimately, more companies will need to adopt that level of ambition and transparency to correct the numbers.

What do you think companies can do to progress the careers of women working in technology?

The biggest thing is not to wait for women to raise their hands, but be proactively having conversations with them about their career goals and making those conversations specific and time bound. I learned recently that it’s relatively common for men to approach their managers with an expectation that they’ll be actively discussing their career development and what the next step looks like. By contrast, it’s often necessary to pull that information out of women. On some level, you could say that’s on those women to be having more direct conversations and advocating for their own careers. But it’s also a good idea for any company that hopes to retain its women talent, particularly in a competitive market like tech, to be making promotion and growth conversations as easy and routine as possible by proactively anticipating them. Discuss what that next step will look like, what skills are needed to get there, how you’ll know when you’re ready, and what a target timeline looks like. That timeline part is really important: it takes it out of the realm of theoretical growth, and turns it into a shared plan.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

Some of the greatest points of career mobility for me happened when I connected with other women, and we compared notes and advice, and cheered each other on to overcome the immediate challenges.

So if given the chance, I’d wave my magic wand, and the pixie dust would settle to reveal a global whisper network for women in tech, shaped as intimate support groups. The rule would be that participants must discuss and share openly:

  • what techniques have worked for them to create more equitable conditions for themselves in tech
  • personal lessons learned on how to get promoted, get a raise, delegate, push back on inappropriate work requests, address bias directly, etc.
  • who are their professional allies, and which handsy colleagues they should steer clear of
  • what they’re getting paid, and any information they have about what their male colleagues are getting paid

The real magic would be to turn women’s professional challenges in tech from a private problem into a source of shared knowledge and strength.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?