Mags Hanley has worked in digital for over 25 years. She’s had leadership roles in information architecture, product management, and user experience design. Now, she’s helping designers find their career paths and build leadership and information architecture skills.
In this conversation, we discuss Career Architecture, the focus of her current coaching work and subject of her upcoming book.
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Jorge: Mags, welcome to the show.
Mags: Thanks, Jorge. Lovely to see you again. It’s been so long.
Jorge: It has been. It’s fantastic to have you here in the show. As you’re hinting at with that warm greeting, we’ve known each other for a long time.
Mags: It’s probably over 20 years now.
Jorge: Folks who are listening in likely don’t know you. So for their benefit, would you mind please introducing yourself?
Mags: Sure. I’m Mags Hanley. I am a long-time information architect, and I’ve been a product manager and a user experience manager. I’ve done the gamut. So, a long-time digital person. And over the last couple of years, actually — it’s been the last couple of years — I’ve actually moved into more of where I feel I can make the most impact, and that is into career architecture. So, using what I use as an information architect for people’s careers. And it’s really come from where have I been previously as a manager, and going, “actually, I want to use all of that to support and grow people within design.”
Jorge: Well, I’m super intrigued by this phrase, “career architecture,” and I’ll just tell you what it speaks to, to me, before you describe it: it speaks to somehow applying some of the tools and techniques and frames that folks like ourselves bring to design projects, to the design of our careers. Is that a fair take?
Mags: That’s a fair take. It came from a time… so, I am a member of a business school to help me develop my practice. And I sat down with the leader of the business school, Lisa O’Neill, and she asked me to describe what I do and what I am. And I said, “well, I’m an information architect. I’m going to just tell you a little bit about that,” which took a little longer than I expected.
Once I made the library connection, that just… you know, the cataloging elements sort of hit her, but it can be quite abstract. And then I said, “but my passion is growing people. And my passion is coaching and growing people in design and in digital, and making sure that they find what they need to do. The right path for them right now.” And she turned to me and went, “you’re an architect. You architect people’s careers, and you architect information!” And I went, “Sweet!”
So, when I was talking to all of this — and I was talking more about what is now my passion project, which is about elders in design and grown, people who are grown up in design — she turned to me and said, “I think you need a foundational course.” And a foundational course, which is the career architecture, and then you can build on top of it.
So, as we were saying, career architecture is about how we can use the methods that we think about and we use as information architects or as UX professionals and apply that in a very systematic way into how we think about our careers. And it’s come a lot from two places. One is, it came out of something that I applied for myself.
So, I finished up a project — a piece of work working for a major retailer, an e-commerce retailer in Australia — and realized as I was doing this, this wasn’t the place for me. And I talked to some friends who turned to me and said, “this is not the place for you. This is not the right place for you. It’s the right place for others, not for you.” And I sat down and tried to work out what it is that I wanted to move forward with. I used this process on myself. And over the last two years, I’ve been doing exactly the same with people that I am coaching.
Jorge: When you say “growing people,” are you talking about them growing as professionals exclusively, or is this more broad than that?
Mags: As of this moment, it’s very much the professionals themselves, but one of the things that I take into consideration — and we look at together — is about life circumstances. And I feel that’s the part that most people, when they talk about their professional growth, don’t take into consideration.
I’m a woman of 50, and I’m sitting here going, “I don’t have a family, but I have elderly parents.” And that is a big life circumstance for me to sit there and say how… if I’m thinking about what my next direction is, how does that impact the care that I have to give to my parents? And that means I’d make a different decision about what my career and my direction would be because I have that life circumstance.
So, I feel as if, even though we think about professional development and where we want to go, we have to think about it in the whole ecosystem of where we are and what we do. And then we will make decisions about our lives and where we want to go based on what those circumstances are.
Jorge: Yeah, this distinction that we hear so often about work-life balance, I always feel like it’s a bit of a false dichotomy in that work is life and life is work, and they’re all intertwined, right?
Mags: Absolutely. And I’m working a lot with women who are in their forties and fifties, and basically, they’ve got family and parents and health conditions, and they need health benefits. If you’re in the US, you need to make sure that you have the money for benefits. We’re lucky in Australia — and I’ve lived in the UK — that we don’t have to worry about that, with socialized medicine. But we sit there and go, “actually, our lives are wrapped. Our work is only a part of our lives and therefore, how does the rest of it work in together?”
The career architecture process
Jorge: Why don’t you walk us through it? Like, what does the process look like? Because I’ll tell you, when folks hear the word “architecture,” I suspect that they think about some kind of top-down structure being imposed on a situation. People can’t see this on the show, but you’re nodding your head. So…
Mags: I’m nodding my head, going, “No! No, no, no. I’m a bottom up information architect!” I sit there and I understand the context. I understand all the bits, so I can build up. And I think that’s the element for me, which is the current-state analysis. So basically, I think about it as in two parts. I think about the process as: let’s do your current-state analysis. Let’s understand all those parts that make up who you are and your life and your stakeholders. And then be able to say, “what does this strategy look from there?” I feel that we actually don’t do that enough.
So, my process is… we’re looking at skills. I’m going really deep. What are your technical skills? What is skills when it comes to what Seth Godin says is “real skills.” So, how do you influence? How do you work with others? We talk about the sorts of skills that you think about in a practice. Everything to do with design and research ops and how to do velocity and scoping.
So, what do you actually know as a designer? How do you work with people? Do you do people management? So, it’s that sort of skills audit. Then we start to have a look at what’s your experience. So, how much experience do you have? What education do you have? And then go and have a look at what your aspirations are.
So, I’ve been writing the book and I’ve been writing an aspect, and putting my own flavor as examples, and then I have some case studies as well. And I sat down and said, “my aspiration is to be a gigging jazz musician.” And I know that actually I’m not good enough and I haven’t put enough time into it if I really wanted to be a gigging jazz singer, that would be what I would need to do. But the aspects that came out of it was that I’m not creative enough, so I really need more creativity.
I’m working alone at the moment. So, I work from my home office and so I sit there and go, actually, it’s more about people. It’s about teaching. It’s about connection. And if I look at that as aspirations, that then sits there and says, “oh! That’s what I want from career and life.” “Life” means it’s about connection. It’s about creativity.
So, we look at all of those bits and then I sit there and say, “let’s do some stakeholder interviews.” Your stakeholder interviews are two things: your family and your friends and your coworkers. And ex-bosses. Let’s get the feedback of what’s working and what’s not, and what the impact is.
So, I know in different places that I’ve been that when I’ve been in places that don’t work for me, there is a large impact on my family and friends from my mood and what the talk is happening. And therefore understanding what they’re seeing, where possibly you’re in a place of going, “Ooh, I don’t know what’s happening. Where should I be going?” really gives you some more feedback into this.
And at that point, we’re starting to say, what sort of directions, what possible directions are there for me? What vision do I have of where I want to be? So, we move from understanding what we are, and as I said, “the bottom up.” All of those little elements in the same ways if I was doing some e-commerce work. I’d be sitting there and having a look — as I sometimes do — at all the product data and I understand what’s happening and what descriptions are there and where we are, and what’s good and what’s bad. And then I create a strategy for what that information architecture would look like for an e-commerce.
And so, the strategy element has got a number of different bits to it. One is, we look at vision and this vision… it’s more about how you want to think and feel and what you want to be able to do. So, I think it is: think, feel, value and do, as a way to be able to say, “this is who I want to be, and this is what I want my career to be. “
And from that, there could be multiple directions. Because if I take my own example — and this is something that I was doing when I finished up at my last permanent work role — was I sat there and said, “There are three different directions I could go on.” I’ve been a UX manager for many, many years. Do I want to go back to that? And I had that moment of going, I just don’t want to do the evangelism again. I just don’t want to put myself there. I’ve been doing that sort of evangelism for 20 years, and I don’t want to put myself in that position again.
I felt I could go into product management. I’ve done loads of product management, starting at the BBC. So, I’ve had that, done that, over the years as well. And I felt that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted and it was relatively immature in Australia, and I didn’t want to put the time into it. And then I looked at my coaching and mentoring and development practice and I went, “Oh! The stuff that I love to do, growing people.”
So, growing them, seeing that they can move off, whether it is teaching them a new skill or whether it is helping them work out what the next stage should be. Talking about — and we’ll probably talk about growing a little later — talking about what happens and how we can make sure that people who are over 45 actually have a real career. And I’m going, “Ooh, that I could make an impact on.”
And then talking about women in leadership. I sat there and go, “I’m excited about this. It meets my vision of growing people and working with people and being creative.”
Doing research on yourself
Jorge: I’m thinking as I’m hearing you describe this, that this maps fairly closely to the design process, as I understand it, where you start doing research and you try to get a read on the situation that you’re dealing with. And then with that context, you then start formulating certain hypotheses, which you go off and test.
So, I actually have two questions here, and maybe we can take them one at a time. One is, when we’re doing this type of work for a client, say for a project, we’re researching the subject domain and we might have some degree of knowledge in the domain or perhaps not, but we are…
Maybe I’ll speak for myself. I can be somewhat emotionally detached from the thing that I am examining. But, the stuff that we’re talking about here is very personal, and our identities are invested into our work. And how do we get a clean read on the situation?
Mags: The clean read has to come from having someone you can talk about this to. Now, whether this is someone like me, who’s a coach, whether it is a trusted friend or a mentor within the industry, you need to be able to have someone who you can talk to and then reflect back to you.
And when I think about the sort of people who’ve done that for me, I think about my friend Julie who… There were a number of times — and she’s in Minnesota, so I’m ringing her up on a Saturday morning (it’s a Friday night in her time) — and we’re having this conversation and I realized that she’s got such a clean read on what was happening to me and what I would need.
I went to a coach who, she… we were sitting there and talking about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. And very, very, you know, strict school-teacher moment. Of which sometimes I have those moments myself, where I have to sit there and go, “really? Okay. Let’s talk about this in much cleaner terms, but also in slightly less emotional.” And I think that’s where another person helps.
Jorge: What I’m hearing there is that the way to research this part of the subject domain in a way where your emotional entanglements with the subject don’t throw you off track, is to have other folks reflect it back at you and just keep you… bring some perspective, right?
Mags: Correct. And the way that I describe it is that every time we’re doing this is usually at an inflection point. There is something that has sat there and gone: you have to make this decision. Something has picked you up. Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to leave work, for example. Leave a place. It just means there’s an inflection point where something’s not working, or there may be an opportunity and you’re not really sure.
Jorge: What’s curious about that is when I think back to my own inflection points in my life, those have been moments of high anxiety…
Jorge:…which again, that’s an impediment to getting a clean read, right?
Mags: It is. And that’s why, in some ways, doing a process is an element of taking away the anxiety. Because a process is sitting there and saying, “I’m going to do one and two and three and four.” And anxieties mean that you go into loops and you’re in a very heightened, emotional state. And if you sat there and doing a process… and I’m talking as a process-girl; I’m very much a systematizer. You sit there and you’re taking the time to write and to draw? That works really well for us, if we are designers, we write and we draw and we all got the sticky notes. I still see the sticky notes all around my monitor right now. And you’re taking time out of that emotional state to do some analysis.
Testing possible directions
Jorge: That’s a great segue to the second question that I had for you, which is kind of the next step in the process, right? Which is, if we have a pretty good read about our situation, our goals, what we want out of it… then I would imagine that the next step is defining the… like you were saying, the possible directions. And how I would approach this in a design process would be to find ways of testing those. And I wonder if there’s like an analog here for your career, like how do you test possible directions?
Mags: I think there’s a couple of ways to do this. And one is… so one of the bits I didn’t talk about was positioning. So one of the elements when you look at it, you need to understand where you are positioned yourself. And I was talking to someone else in the network last night and he said, “it’s not PR, is it?” And I went, “no, no, no. I’m not talking about PR. I’m talking about positioning yourself and understanding how you are seen and known within the industry, or seen and known within your organization.” And start to go, ‘Okay, if this is where I’m positioned, what could I move forward to?”
And that comes back into this testing element, which says, what does your network talk about? Is there the opportunities there? Do you see this on LinkedIn? When you go to your network and say, I’m interested in coaching, does someone turned to me and go, “oh, Mags! You are fantastic at that. Of course, I will help you find that solution. Or I can refer you to someone else.” Are you starting to find that what you are looking at makes sense to the network and makes sense to where you can position yourself in an organization or in a profession?
One of the other bits that I go through in the book is I actually talk about the different types of careers that are available to design. And the term I use is “practitioner,” not individual contributor. And I don’t know if that’s because of the time I worked in the UK, but, I don’t like “individual contributors” as a term. Practitioner to me seems softer.
We have three major ones that we do. We’re a practitioner. So, we’re someone who’s actually doing… practicing the design work. We are a manager. So, someone who’s in a managerial position, actually managing people or moving up into managing design within the business. And then we have consultants, who are people who are providing their expertise into other organizations.
So, going up from someone who may be a freelancer through to a thought leader. And then we have “other.” Of which many of us move into whether we are a teacher or coach, or I think of Kara, who’s a chief of staff. So, you sit there and say, we’ve got all of these different roles. And one of the bits then is to test out which ones of these types of paths make sense.
You can go and talk to others within the industry. And the reason that the chief of staff came up was that Kara, who is in one of my Slack groups, basically had a Zoom meeting where she talked to a bunch of us about what a chief of staff is and how it relates to us being design leaders and how our skills of organizing and researching and coordinating and putting things together work very well as a chief of staff for a senior leader. And you sit there and go, “ah! I’ve done my research. Do I have those skills as well?”
Jorge: Do I have those skills — and I would imagine that there’s also the… identifying the gaps, right? Like, maybe if I find that I don’t have the skill, then the question is how do I acquire that skill.
Mags: Absolutely. And that’s the sort of planning… that’s my gap analysis planning moment where you sit there and go, “okay! I want to be here and I want to be there. What is that gap? And how do I fill that gap?” You know, do I do more education? Do I actually need a network that’s going to help me get there? How do I build that network?
Planning is a big one for me. And one of the bits that I work on when I do this with people is, we go through the whole process. And at the end of it, we have a planning session and then 30 days later, or six weeks later, we catch up and go through the plans and see where they’ve been and what’s changed.
Because you can put plans in place and then life happens and change happens. And I think that’s one of the bits that I take from digital, which is, yeah! We can plan all we want. We’ve got to be agile, but we also know there is so much rapid change in both digital and in the way our careers are and in our family, that we need to be able to move with it.
Jorge: Just for the sake of being comprehensive… it feels like we’ve talked about two steps. This first step of getting a read on our situation. The second step: determining possible directions and testing them. Is there something that happens after that in the process?
Working on the positioning
Mags: Well, where I’ve seen what happens with the process is that we actually go forward in that particular direction. So, we start working on our positioning to get us there.
I have this model of done, seen, and known. And so, the aim for us is to sit there and go: I’ve got this vision. I’ve got possible directions. I’ve looked at the impact of where I feel I can make the most impact in each of these. I’ve chosen a direction that I want to go. I have a plan for what I need to do to take me to that next step. And then a lot of it is then positioning. So, it’s sitting there and saying, “if I’m somewhere…”
Let’s just take an example of me working at the BBC. I was working as an IA lead and I finished up on a CMS project and I was sitting there going, “Okay. What’s next?” And someone said to me, “We probably need you to help to do some work on program information. It’s sort of a small skunkworks project…”
And I turned to the leader and said, “I just don’t want to be the UX person on this. I want to be the project lead.” And that took him slightly aback. “Ooh! Okay.” And that was that. And it was the first time I was positioning myself at the BBC as being more than the practitioner that I was.
I was sitting there going, “no, no. I lead the project. I organize it. I coordinate it. I have all the people. I’m owning where this is going.” I’m not necessarily coming up with the vision for it, but I’m owning where it is going. And it then took me to my next role, which was an executive producer who is running 12 products. But without actually putting that out there and then starting to position myself and getting known for that, I wouldn’t have gotten to that next role.
Jorge: Which again, to draw the analogy with the design process, especially for large-scale systems projects, you have research, some kind of synthesis process where you map out possible directions. You embark on one of the directions. And then there is a governance process that follows where you keep evolving, right? The thing is not finished somehow.
An ongoing process
Mags: And we are not finished. And I think that’s the big thing of all of this is to realize that we are never going to be… we may have a vision for now. And we have a direction that we take, but there’s no way that we sit there and go, “This is the only direction I’m ever going to go.”
I was writing this up and I said, I think about two different types of people. And I’m going to say in design, but to be honest, I don’t think this is limited to design, when I think about their careers. There are the planners who go, “I am here as a mid-weight designer and I want to be a senior VP, and I’m going to go on that ladder to get there.” Then you have people who are floaters, who sort of sit there and go: “oh, I’m okay. You know, everything’s okay.” And then something happens and they have to realize they have to make a decision.
In each of these situations, there’s either a mindset of: I’m going to follow the ladder, or I just don’t know what’s going to happen. And if we actually sat there and went, “No. Think about this as a two-year vision. Think of this as a direction for two years and each time, test it. Do your way-finding. Sit there and go, what’s happening? At this point in time, where am I and what’s happening? All right. Should I be continuing on in that direction? Is it the wrong one?”
I’ve had people who’ve said to me, “I decided to experiment and see if I wanted to be a UX leader. And I went and became a manager, and it became very apparent that that wasn’t where I wanted to be.” And I went, “great! Don’t know where I want to be, but that’s not it. Fantastic. You’ve tried it. Come out, try something else. “
Jorge: You’ve learned something, right? And shifting based on what you’ve learned. To start bringing this to a close, I’m wondering about the current state of this work for you. You’ve already hinted at the fact that you’re working on a book, but what’s the state of Career Architecture right now for you?
Mags: So, Career Architecture as a book is going to be out at the end of August. And I am taking pre-sales for the electronic. I have to admit, living in Australia and postage is a struggle at the moment. Australia has closed borders at the moment, so we don’t have as many planes coming and therefore postage is really hard. So, I’m selling that as an electronic at the moment.
It is a process that I have been using with my clients for the last two years and has been evolving over the last two years. So, I work with clients both individually and in programs, and I help them through this process. And I’m that trusted person that they have the conversations with of, does this work, does this not work?
I’m getting them to reflect. And what’s interesting is when I go through that process, when we first did the first vision and direction, everyone’s going, “yes! This is where I want to be! This is what I want to do!” And then, through the eight weeks, it starts to temper itself and/or starts to really modify. So, there’ll be people who sit there going, “I’m going to do this! “
And then they realize, “I’ve got to have health benefits. Okay. Maybe I can’t do that.” Or, “you know, I want to grow my organization.” And after a couple of weeks, they’ve realized maybe there isn’t room for growth in the organization.
Jorge: Well, great. Is there a website where folks can learn more about the book when it comes out?
Mags: Of course! It’s maghanley.com. And I’ve already got some information there on the site about the book, and over the next couple of weeks, once we get close to printing, I will be putting more resources up. Because I feel as if you’ve got the book, and there’ll be lots of templates in there. That’s the lovely bit about the book, is that I really want to be a workbook. So, there are templates for people to fill in to actually get to the point of going, “oh, this is where I want to be!” But I’m also going to make those available electronically.
Jorge: Well, fantastic. And is that website also where folks can reach out to you, should they be interested in working with you?
Mags: Absolutely! So, you can contact me at magshanley.com, or always LinkedIn. So please, I’m there as Margaret (Mags) Hanley.
Jorge: Well, I’ll include links to all of those things in the show notes. Thank you, Mags, for being on the show. It’s been a real pleasure catching up with you again.
Mags: Absolutely! Thank you, Jorge. And hopefully in time — close in time — I will be able to see you again in person.
Jorge: Let’s hope so.