On Teaching: Career Happiness Venn Diagram (Part 3)

Last year I wrote about Career Happiness using a four-way Venn diagram to illustrate the relationships among these factors: 

  • You love to do it.
  • You do it well. 
  • It gives you financial security or independence. 
  • You believe it makes a difference. 
Jobs in  bold  are ones I have held in the past. 

Jobs in bold are ones I have held in the past. 

In Part 2, I filled out the Venn diagram with specific examples of jobs that illustrate the presence of these factors, identifying those that I have had versus ones I have not. The past few months have allowed me to update one from the latter to the former – teacher

I recently finished teaching my first course as an Adjunct Professor at Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley. I taught a 6-unit short course called "HCI & UX Design for Managers" in the MS in Software Management program. I taught two sections, each of which met for two hours once a week for seven weeks. It was an intense experience for everyone involved, and I'm sure I learned more than any of the students going through it. 


I wrote Part 2 in August last year, and by November I was able to interview for and was offered the position to teach this course. Having never done this before, I started by trying to understand my target user. The program's description of the roles prospective students are being prepared to take was very helpful: 

  • Software Product Manager
  • Software Project Manager
  • Program Manager
  • Director of Software Development
  • VP/Director of Engineering
  • Entrepreneur

It was important for me to remember that these students likely don't have a background in HCI or UX nor are interested in becoming HCI/UX professionals. I spoke to the program's administrators and professors, reviewed information from previous courses, spoke to friends and colleagues, and did a bunch of online research. What I didn't do was talk to prospective students currently in the program, but it would have been difficult to get the information I needed from them directly. 

My most important insights came from the experiences that I and my colleagues have had in working with or being those people who have held those roles listed above. I gathered a set of advisors comprised of people I have known and/or worked with for 20+ years. Most of them were HCI/UX practitioners, but some were engineers or project/program/product managers. With their help, I was able to identify those areas we believed would be most relevant, leading me to focus the course on enabling students to become successful technical leaders who understand the value of HCI & UX. I attempted to capture all of this in the course description:  

This graduate level short course exposes Software Engineering and Management professionals to the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and User Experience (UX). In the modern marketplace, the winners are those who enable real people to harness the power of technology innovations in delightful ways. Delighting customers through technology requires a strong foundation in HCI and a focus on UX. This course is primarily for those who come from a technical or business background but are interested in gaining relevant knowledge and basic skills in HCI/UX in an interactive, fast-paced, and engaging format. 

The goals for the course are:

  • To provide an overview across the breadth of HCI/UX disciplines to understand the relevant roles, responsibilities, processes, methodologies, concepts, tools, and deliverables expected of them.
  • Through increased knowledge and understanding, establish empathy with HCI/UX practitioners in order to establish productive working relationships.
  • To provide a theoretical & practical foundation for the HCI & UX practice within modern product development.
  • Understand the underlying history & theory through relevant readings, discussions, and presentations.
  • Gain practical experience through team-based project work, presentations, and critique.
  • Work together in cross-functional teams using a User-Centered Design (UCD) approach.
  • To create a greater appreciation for the intellectual, emotional, and practical value of HCI & UX.

Non-goals: to become an HCI/UX expert.

After completing this course, students will be able to:

  • Apply user-centered design approaches in professional practice;
  • Understand the proper value of research and design in product development;
  • More effectively partner and communicate with HCI and UX experts;
  • Build upon a strong theoretical and practical foundation in HCI/UX to design product and service innovations that are useful, usable, and beautiful.  

I spent a lot of time pulling together a syllabus that could support the goals I put in place for the course. Seven weeks isn't a lot of time, so it required focusing on themes which could form that foundation that I believe were the most impactful. I created a Google Doc that I added to and edited over time, and I solicited feedback from a group of friends & industry colleagues by sharing the document and holding an email conversation over a period of a couple months. This organic process enabled me to define the subject areas for each week of the course: 

  1. Foundation – historical, industrial, and cultural context of HCI & UX design
  2. Discovery – understanding brand, consumer, business, and technology within a UX context
  3. Opportunity – finding the opportunity based on research & insights
  4. Design – creating solutions using various design techniques 
  5. Prototyping – using prototypes to design; discuss development process
  6. Validation – validating through user testing; discuss cognitive psychology
  7. Synthesis – pulling it all together 

These themes were based on our collective experience and research over the years which I supplemented with even more reading and research. I wanted each of the themes to be taught through a combination of theory, lessons & stories from my own experience, and hands-on practice through project work. I gave a weekly presentation (thank you Wikipedia & Google) and assigned readings & viewings of relevant resources. I loved gathering all these materials for the course as it gave me my own refresher and exposed me to new things I didn't know before. 

Starting with Week 2, I assigned teams and unveiled the project that they will work on together. I also solicited volunteers from my pool of industry friends to act as remote team advisors. Each successive week required project work related to the theme and a short presentation to the class, culminating in a final team presentation on Week 7. I arranged a joint lecture session where I invited my friends Micki & Brendan to provide the Product Manager and Engineer points-of-view when talking about development process in Week 5. 

I estimated that I put in about 50+ hours preparing in the months before the course started and 4 hours in class plus 15-20 hours outside of class throughout its 7-week run in the mini-semester. Moving forward, I expect to spend less time since I don't have to create or gather the materials from scratch, but it would still require a significant amount of time to make sure it's done right. The students said that, on average, they spent about 11 hours each week on homework. It was clearly a lot of work for everyone involved. 

While calculating grades at the end of the course, I ran into some issues that required me to make adjustments due to a couple rookie mistakes: not being clear about the grading rubric in the beginning and not providing ongoing feedback throughout to allow students to course correct. That caused some confusion and concern, but I was able to resolve those issues with support from the department head and bit of additional work. 

So here I am, the week after final grades have been submitted, and I have just received the results of my course evaluations. I pulled the data from the poorly-formatted reports into Excel, did some basic calculations to extract the raw numbers, and combined the two sections together.   

I was very pleased with the results, but there's always going to be a part of me that wants to get even better results in the future. In addition to the raw numbers (which were the result of multiple questions answered on a 5-point Likert scale), students could provide additional comments and almost half of them did. Some of my favorite verbatims:

  • I think the language used in the class was highly unprofessional and would recommend that it be cleaned up.
  • Suggest bringing more guests since the storytelling aspect of listening to guest speakers is a great head-fake way of learning.
  • Would be better if it were a semester-long course.
  • The course content, presentation material, task structure and the quality of subject are excellent. Should do an extended course to actually build and launch the product.
  • This was my favorite class. Had a lot of fun in class and doing the tasks. Learnt a lot in the process.

I'm very thankful to the students for caring enough to provide comments to both encourage and help me get better. Overall I'm quite happy (and relieved) that the course was well-received, but clearly I have room for improvement.

The complaint about my language (okay, I say bad words) seems like an anomaly given all the other comments, but it's a good reminder that people come from very different backgrounds. The tech industry and Silicon Valley have very informal work cultures, so I have become quite used to swearing in professional environments. 

There were quite a few that thought the class deserved a full-semester course with double the credits, meaning that I may have packed too much in a half-semester. Additional comments suggested that the subject matter deserved more time (I agree), that they wanted to go a bit broader and deeper, and that a full semester course could provide that. And, as always, it's great to get some positive comments to encourage me to keep on going. 


Looking back to the Career Happiness Venn Diagram, teaching was the job that I could love, do well, and believe makes a difference, but not to provide financial security or independence. My experience this past semester reinforced all of this. I have looked into what's missing a bit further, and it will be the subject of another blog post in the near future. 

I plan to teach as a part-time pursuit for the foreseeable future, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to do so. I love doing it, I can see that I can get better at it to do it well, and I believe that it could make a difference in people's lives and, indirectly, the industry, as these students pursue their careers. The more that product and engineering leaders are knowledgeable of HCI & UX design, the better it will be for all of us.