I choose me.
Ten years ago I started a blog called “Abby the IA” to share my thoughts on practicing and teaching information architecture.
After years of productive content creation, I fell out of touch with that blog four years ago. That coincided with going in-house to work at Etsy as their first information architect.
The following is the story of what happened and what I learned.
2010-2015 was a whirlwind. I went independent, taking a chance on building my own IA practice. I moved from Chicago to New York City, where I met, fell in love with and married my husband, James.
I made content, gave talks and taught information architecture however and whenever I could. That commitment of my time and energy paid off and I had the privilege to be invited to travel all over the world, meeting new people and talking about the messes they wanted to make sense of and how information architecture might help them become clearer sensemakers. It was a total trip and it changed me for the absolute better.
In 2015 James and I moved to Melbourne, Florida, a small surf town on the space coast where James grew up. I felt at home immediately. Melbourne reminded me so much of where I grew up in the Virgin Islands, with its slow pace and friendly, beachy people.
After five years on the road constantly, the sense of relief I felt when my feet hit the carpet of the local airport on my arrival trip in Melbourne was breathtaking. I knew I was finally done with the New York City hustle. I was ready for a quiet life when I was at home, to combat the busy one when I was traveling.
I continued consulting from Florida, still going to the airport but this time just a ten minute drive away to a local airport where security averaged the length of time to wave hello to the TSA team. I set up my dream studio in the room above our garage and started to focus on what it would be like to work remotely and start a family.
I moved my teaching job at SVA to 80% remote, I started doing coaching and user/stakeholder interviewing remotely, and only traveled for large presentations and workshops that required it. I would be home for 5 or 6 week stretches, instead of 10 to 14 day stretches like before.
It was a step in the right direction, but if I am honest: decelerating actually made the problem come more sharply into focus. I had never learned to take care of myself on the road, and it was definitely starting to feel like living a double life.
By late 2016 I started to admit to myself that my life on the road, and choice to continue hustling through the near constant sales cycle of consulting as a specialist was an obvious stress on my body and my mind. And most painfully, it had started to become clear that it was likely the thing most impacting my ability to hold a pregnancy.
Around that time I had been working with Etsy on a few consulting engagements. The team there started to actively talk to me about their work life balance, unique culture and their generous parental leave and family medical benefits. Add to that, everyone I met who worked there was really smart and saw how much IA potential there was at Etsy. AND they seemed totally ok with me staying home on a commitment of one week a quarter in Brooklyn. This offer allowed the right amount of travel, as well as a frequent opportunity to return to one of my favorite places filled with some of my favorite people: I was sold. I got their mission and they got mine. It seemed perfect for where I was at.
But even as sweet as this deal seemed, I struggled with the idea of going back to a corporate job, because my sense of the industry was that someone with my level of seniority and speciality would be forced soon enough by most organizations to become a manager. I was equally concerned that my mission to teach IA to the world was nowhere near complete, so I didn’t want my content creation and teaching time to be lessened by a full time commitment.
With my heart in my hands (or let’s be real friends, in my throat) — I broached both of these topics with Etsy and was met with understanding and collaboration. We were able to come to a shared vision and understanding of how we might alleviate my fears of going in house and moved forward with discussing what a full time role would look like in practical terms.
By this point in my teaching work, I had started to write and speak about the need for more collaboration in information architecture. After seeing success in my consulting practice by introducing collaborative techniques for making sense in groups, I was eager to put my collaborative theories and tools to the test in a new way — by committing to one company’s messes exclusively.
In January of 2017 I took a full time position with Etsy as their first information architect.
When I arrived at Etsy, I went in with two intentions:
- to make a world for myself where motherhood felt like a possibility — unlike my life on the road for the seven years prior
- to explore what it means to be a information architect in a product organization where IA is practiced by many more than are aware of it
At this point in my story – both my work and home life needed me to stay put in order to get to what was next. My work life needed me to stay put in order to focus on collaboration with others inside a problem space over time, not just one project. My home life needed me to stay put to focus on preparing for motherhood.
It was like the universe was urging me to build a whole new life so I could have the room to decide the woman I wanted to be as an information architect and a mother.
Thanks to some needed lifestyle changes, loads of patience and ultimately a very dedicated acupuncturist …On 1/2/19 at 12:19 PM my sweet Jamie was born and I became who I am now: a mother and an information architect.
Last summer, I returned to Etsy after having earned a glorious six months of paid parental leave. It was a dream to have been given that time to be with my family and learn how to be a parent side by side with James.
My gratitude for parental leave aside, I was met with lots of challenges upon my return. The management chain that hired me had two and half years later been fully erased from the organization chart, all the way up through the CEO.
In fact, not a single member of the executive team from the company that I joined was left when I returned from leave.
This moment was a real life Ship of Theseus for me. I found myself wondering if every part of an organization is replaced slowly over time, is it really still the same organization by the end?
Add to that, at Etsy when we replaced each part we weren’t putting the ship back together at all, we were actually making it into a Rocket Ship of Theseus. And that rocket ship was really breathtaking.
I want to be *crystal* clear here, I knew that I worked on a rocket ship before I went on leave. This is NOT the story of a woman who went to work for a small company and then they got too big for her.
I was hired to help Etsy get big.
For years I was right alongside the rest of them dismantling and rebuilding the core of what the business is. But even with the full knowledge of our trajectory, returning from leave put our rocket ship realities into full focus for me.
With two years of accomplishments in house, I had earned respect for my work throughout the organization. But in my early weeks back from leave, it became clear that there was no one at Etsy any longer who was actually accountable for my place in the organization nor for my growth.
I was an individual contributor with a job title that no one else had ever had, at a level created for her, coming back after 6 months to no manager at all. Add to that, there had been another reorg so I also had no group within which I actually belonged.
I was an information architect with a classification edge case on her hands. And I(A) was that edge case.
It was a scary place to be, especially as a mother who was six months postpartum in the desperate throes of a six month old learning how to human. I was a mess.
For the first few days I actually directly reported to the head of HR while they “figured it out” — “it” being my career path, job security, place in the organization, and general acceptance of my role. Unfortunately “it” never was figured out.
And yet, I persisted with the work. I identified an area of the business I thought I could be helpful in, made connections with the people working in that space and dove in. Then I resurrected an old project that had a ton of potential but had atrophied in my absence. I dusted off my IA tool belt and got back to work.
One of the projects that I attached myself to in those early months back from parental leave has now been built into a 20+ person team of multiple squads who are working in a problem space I have a ton of heart and energy for. I was incredibly effective in helping to establish clear IA opportunities for Etsy, and yet as investment in both began it became clear that my job title would become an ongoing issue.
I voiced this issue with my leadership countless times and I was always met with the message that we would “figure it out” — and yet resource conversations were entirely disconnected from strategy conversations, and it became painfully clear that it was really assumed that I would figure it out.
So my day-to-day around that time was a unique agony of explaining to person after person that I did not know exactly what my official role was, but that I hoped to be helpful in the ways of helping with structure and language in any way I could.
And lots of people at Etsy wanted my help. So I gave that help readily and was thanked both publicly and privately for it by those people.
One of my eight (nine by some counts) managers best described this as “invisible work” — which is surely the highest compliment someone with a degrading sense of professional self esteem can possibly be dealt.
Another manager told me that to get along at Etsy I needed to have a full time job marketing my work. At performance time, my never-ending trail of managers delivered new interpretations on the same two-point contradiction over and over and over again…
- You are an incredible team player and top performer in this company. Your work is impeccable and everyone loves working with you.
- There is no business case to promote you and we don’t know the timeframe in which that will be resolved, but good job — carry on
It felt as if there was an invisible point being made that all the work I was doing, while appreciated by those getting things done around the organization was not appreciated enough by those setting the agenda for the organization.
This silent point was increasingly deafening.
By the last incident of this feedback at the close of Q2 2020, I had struggled to keep accepting the friction that these two (err…three) points created for me at every feedback juncture. The cracks had started to feel irreparable and I knew that if I was going to be happy at work everyday, I would need to set aside my career path struggles and focus on the work instead.
At this point I knew that Etsy wasn’t the place for me to practice as an IC much longer. But in early Q2 of 2020 everything was on fire, both figuratively and literally. My family was in distress along with the rest of the world. I loved my project and the mission that I was helping to build a team to work on. And worst for my ego, I loved the potential that lay ahead for us.
I honestly thought at that point that the potential in that problem space would be enough for me to stay, to keep ignoring the obvious flaws of my situation and the alarm bells going off daily about how this was actually impacting me.
Here is a quote from an interview I gave about being a senior individual contributor in March that in hindsight feels like a soothsaying…
… when you are speaking with your manager about your job, make sure to ask what the growth of an IC looks like on their team. It’s best to find out if there is a ceiling at your particular company. If there is, question that ceiling and make the case to raise it if needed. Etsy has had to reassess their career ladder as a result of my joining the company, but that has opened up paths for folks that might not have had that choice before. Other companies need to be willing to do the same if they want to retain great talent.
At the point of this interview I was sitting pressed up uncomfortably on that ceiling, at the top of the product design individual contributor career path.
I was at that moment the highest promoted individual contributor in the product organization, and the first non male to make it to that level in Etsy’s product history.
But I was also a person with years under my belt at that same level, delivering significant value consistently, receiving nothing but high ratings on my work, yet I was being shown that there is no business case to make a level above me, no guidance on how or if I would ever get there, and that my role ambiguity is basically mine to solve should I want to, but is not business critical. And worst of all being left with the impression that the conversation can’t even be had because of untold issues that lay above me about the role of ICs and how much of an IC path to support in what roles.
Each time I brought up my mounting discomfort with my ever-changing line of management, I ended up feeling more unsure about my position and my ability to make a new place for myself longterm at Etsy. I wasn’t ever asking for a promotion, I was always asking for a path.
Here is my response to a direct question posed later in that same March interview about my career path. This was downright eerie to read months later in preparation for this post.
Q: How do you see your career path evolving in the next few years?
A: To be honest, in terms of my career path: I truly don’t know. I am confident that there will always be messes to make sense of but I am unsure about what’s next for me. And for once in my career, I am ok with not knowing. I am deeply focused on a project and other than delivering on that I am not really planning too far out at this point. I am guessing many people are feeling like planning much right now isn’t time well spent with the state of the world.
In April of 2020 I gave a keynote at the Information Architecture Conference about persistence and talked about my struggle with my professional self esteem, sharing some of the anxiety I was feeling about job titles and the field of information architecture.
I wake up every day and worry that what I do for a living, what I use to support my family, what I spend my free time reading, writing and speaking about is not a thing at all. Or even worse, that it is a thing that is not important or of value to other people.
Around the same time, I wrote a proposal to take on a rotation as a Product Manager at Etsy for a part of the ecosystem with a lot of IA work but sorely lacking in product ownership to make a case for major change.
If I’m honest, I did it as an escape from the career path conversation that I felt that I was done having with Etsy. I was exhausted trying to convince Etsy to understand me. I saw this as a way to use my IA skills while aided by a common job title that everyone on my team would have an easier time understanding.
Just like that starting in the summer of 2020 — I was a PM managing a team of 10 people full or part time on my squad. We had a feature release plan, we were working to fill a backlog, we were doing daily stand-ups and norming as a team. And my IA skills were helping. Specifically, the team found my style of project management to be pleasing (if project management can be pleasing) with my meticulous spreadsheets and frameworks for understanding. In terms of product skill-set, people complimented my long-term, holistic focus joining business and user needs and my ability to zoom out on complex problem spaces to break them into pieces to be isolated, discussed and improved upon. Classic IA.
And yet, it wasn’t enough for me. I knew in this role I would never get to the work I really wanted to do even if I was doing work that got me accolades at Etsy.
At this point, I had also emerged from the fog of the last few years to realize that my delicately crafted arrangement of content online had started to atrophy into a messy pile of broken embeds and missing images. The few talks I had written in my spare cycles and delivered over the last three years weren’t even on my own site.
At this point in my story, I thought I was at a crossroads. But no matter where I turned I only saw one way forward: Standing up for myself and what I actually wanted.
After much hand wringing, with the support of my loved ones and mentors, earlier this month I said goodbye to my squad and signed off of my Etsy laptop for the last time.
The days since I left have been like returning home. Even though my smart phone doesn’t register any change of location at all — I feel like I’m in a new place.
Yesterday I spent the morning answering questions about IA and critiquing student work remotely at the Maryland Institute College of Art. At the end of my chat with a small groups, one of the students thanked me for sharing my stories about coming through the UX industry so honestly. They told me how it helped them face all the uncertainty of someone coming into this industry.
That student doesn’t know it, but they are a big part of the reason that these words are actually seeing daylight today.
There is a version of the world where my insecurity about this story and my struggle, especially the level of privilege it takes to just quit a good paying job right now made me queasy enough that this post stayed in google docs forever (where let’s be honest, it would have LOTS of good company)
Instead, I decided when I heard that student’s words that I didn’t want to live in that version of the world. I want to live in a version of the world where people share real stories so that real lessons can be free to all who might benefit.
As I process the close of this chapter I want to tell you what I learned from this experience. I want to leave you with actionable advice on how to choose yourself, even when doing so makes you feel like the world might not understand you.
#1: If you don’t set your intention, someone else will.
When I returned from leave, I faced hard realities of having no one to fight for my place in the organization, instead of setting my intentions to deal with that reality, I let my team’s need for a PM become a distraction intention to help me avoid the problem I should have been focused on solving even if it was hard.
I remember convincing myself that the product manager rotation would be such a good empathy-building experience (and honestly it was) that it was ok to not be doing what I love doing everyday.
Sure my IA skills made me a better product manager (PMs — please take note) but the truth was that I was not practicing IA as my primary function anymore.
I was suddenly the shot caller, decision maker, meeting setter, schedule maker, team cheerleader, and emotional support coworker. I didn’t have time to also be the clarity seeker, map maker, rabbit hole enthusiast, and devil’s advocate with a spreadsheet ready to document meaning.
Overnight I went from 10-15 hrs of meetings a week as an IA to 30-35 hours of meetings a week as a PM. I was expected to do so much paper trail, status report nonsense I could get lost in it til mid week, when I would finally emerge from a sea of to-dos and 7-10 min increments between meetings and think
I should really think about the IA of this thing at some point, right?
…before needing to dive back down into the tedium of keeping a team that size on track.
My squad was incredibly successful, and were noted as a rising force in the organization. But at the end of the day, regardless of how I got there, I had allowed Etsy’s needs to set the intention with which I was using my time and energy.
It took a lot of self reflection and honesty with myself to realize the error of my ways and correct the mistake before it took too much from me. Once I sat down and asked myself about my truer intention, the misalignment was obvious albeit painful to excise.
But I once again learned that even hard things are doable when they are right and true. And so I set a new intention for myself: to set my own damn intentions, always — even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
#2: In your own life, you are the grounds. Don’t just be the filter
In How to Make Sense of Any Mess, I wrote about how important it is to recognize that when we are working with other people, our own emotions, thoughts, mental models and ideas become part of the mess that we are making sense of.
To combat this, I suggest to information architects to think of themselves like the coffee filter, not the grounds. But I have learned more recently that there is indeed danger of taking this same advice into your life.
As an information architect, I believe I am meant for a life of service. I make sense of other people’s messes. The danger comes in when I minimize my own messes, to prioritize making sense of the messes of others. The problem worsens when I let other people’s ideas of what I should do get in the way of who I want to actually be.
So dear reader, when working with others on the creation of an information architecture, my ‘be the filter’ advice still stands. But beware, that same skill when used as blinders to mute your own intentions can be detrimental to finding the truth about yourself and what you actually want.
#3: Actions, not words matter most
One of the hardest conversations leading up to my resignation consisted of a leader on my team asking me why the myriad of compliments on my work wasnt enough to make me feel my value.
It was a question I am grateful she asked, because what I said in the moment turned out to be advice I want to go on to shout from the rooftops. Have you ever said something and as you said it you knew both how true and how scary it was? It was one of those moments.
I said something like
Because actions are more important than words, and while Etsy’s words have been nothing but kind, Etsy’s actions have shown me to be misunderstood, undervalued and largely ignored.
The truth of this was heartbreaking to hear, especially in my own voice. I realized in that moment that it didn’t matter how persistent I was or how good a job I did, my actions would always be met with these kinds of hollow compliments.
As someone who often teaches the importance of words, this lesson was a tough one for me to come to. I came to the understanding that ultimately both truths can coexist. Words can be important and still matter less than actions do.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are making requests for change at work yet your manager and co workers keep saying nice things about you and your work, and nothing ever seems to change. If those compliments start feeling false, or hopeless, or even annoying — know that’s just the gaslighting taking hold. And that I see you.
If you have choices, use your words to take action. If you don’t have choices, protect every ounce of yourself you can, invest in yourself above the organization, set ample boundaries and prepare to vigorously defend those boundaries until you can make another choice of where to spend your time and energy.
#4: You don’t have to like doing things you are good at
I will not skirt around the fact that I was by all accounts a really good Product Manager. I threw myself into the challenge and as mentioned before, my IA skills served me very well in this pursuit.
But after a day of doing this job that I was in fact good at, I felt exhausted … and not in the creatively-fulfilled way I was used to. This exhaustion was of the type I remember from before I was able to choose to work only on things I actually enjoy.
This felt like a step in the absolute wrong direction sure, but it was confusing since all the other signals of success were there: I was getting things done, and the promised boxes were being checked at the correct interval to meet the quarterly goal. My squad was complimented on our culture and communication style. Our first feature shipped and proved itself worthy of our time quickly and without much drama. It was nice. But all told, I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like the dramatic shift in incentive that I experienced, from an IA focused on clarity to a PM focused on delivery. I didn’t like the cultural lens it gave me into the power dynamics and how priorities are set, changed and measured. And I didnt like how little time I had to do what I was good at: focus deeply on making sense of complex information challenges.
So I learned a huge lesson, one in retrospect I have learned MANY times before.
Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean that you LIKE it. You don’t HAVE to do something you don’t like JUST because you are good at it.
When you lay out the logic, it all makes perfect sense, and yet living through these choices can feel so ambiguous.
Intention is simple, and often the choices to get there, logical. Humans are the ones who get it all messy with feelings that start to question what is clear to all who dare to face it honestly. One of those feelings is called: privilege.
There are people out there who very much DO NOT have the choice NOT to do the thing they are good at doing but do not like doing.
There are even more people who are unable to do the thing that they are good at and/or like doing because of a lack of equitable access and opportunity. This is all created by and amplified by a messy ecosystem of systems that were setup and are actively maintained to make more people fail than succeed.
I recognize the privilege of being in the position to walk away from a good paying job during the hardest time this world has seen during my lifetime. I wish more people had the option to leave that I had. Alongside that privilege I also recognize the responsibility I have to myself to not let my guilt get in the way of my knowing what’s best for me.
#5: Know when you have had enough, because you already are enough
I learned through this process that I am enough. And when you know you are enough for the first time in your whole life, you also know when you’ve had enough. Enough of the politics, enough of the bullshit, enough pouring of your persistence into other people’s intentions.
My enough is not the same as another person’s enough. I know now that I will never fit into the boxes that other people draw, for my life, my career or my family structure. I’m ready to get back to drawing my own path.
What’s next for me…
I just spent four years working inside an organization, collaborating on messy IA challenges the scale of which I had never before encountered.
I have stories, lessons and ideas to share. I want to write about what I have learned and think about what I am still curious about.
And it feels like I have so many projects on the back burner I need a new metaphor — which is an exciting feeling to have the time to finally pursue.